Habitat finishes one house and begins another

The Thomas family, Albert "J.R." Thomas, wife Ariel, Tysean, 7, and Dreyden, 4, relax on the sofa in the living room of their new Habitat built home. — Photo by Tony Omer

It was a sunny day Saturday for Albert “J.R.” Thomas and Ariel Thomas and their two boys, Tysean and Dreyden. To hearty applause, the family cut the ribbon on their new house on Bailey Park Road in West Tisbury. They were surrounded by family, friends, and Habitat for Humanity volunteers.

The house is the latest project that the nonprofit organization completed on the Island.

The Reverend Cathlin Baker of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury led a benediction, blessing the house. Habitat co-president Greg Orcutt thanked the volunteers who helped build the house as well as the Town of West Tisbury, which provided Community Preservation funds to help purchase the land.

He praised the sweat equity that the Thomas family had invested in the project and mentioned his own pleasure in seeing how happy the Thomases were to be living in their own house.

The house, the second house of three Habitat has planned on the road off Great Plains Road, is a kit house, designed to be economical, energy efficient, and comfortable, according to Mr. Orcutt. It was assembled by volunteers and the Thomas family.

After the ribbon was cut, the group moved across the small cul-de-sac for the ceremonial ground-breaking for the third house, owned by Wayne and Holly Lawyer and their daughters, Emily, Payton, and Kylie.

In unison, the Lawyer family, Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust (IHT), Habitat co-presidents Doug Ruskin, Jessica Burgoyne, and Mr. Orcutt dug their shovels into the dirt.

The basement is already in place and volunteers were positioning sub-flooring within minutes of the ceremony.

Happy to be home

The Thomases moved into their new home in early February. On Saturday, they had the opportunity to savor the moment surrounded by some of those who made it possible.

“It’s a surreal experience,” Mr. Thomas said. “It’s beautiful. There is nothing like living in a newly constructed house.”

He said the experience was all the more intense because they had been living in a run-down older rental that had not been maintained by the owner. “Anything that needed to be done we had to pay for ourselves,” he said.

Mr. Thomas is a carpenter. Ms. Thomas cleans houses and has a new business photographing new babies. They are both Island-born and raised. J.R. went to the Oak Bluffs School and Ariel the West Tisbury School. They both graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

The couple applied for the house when they saw a Habitat ad in the newspaper. “The application process wasn’t bad at all. You get handed a pretty good size stack of paperwork to fill out, all the stuff you would need to apply for a regular home loan,” Mr. Thomas said.

“The next part is waiting to see if you make the cut. If you do, Habitat makes a home visit to see what your home needs are about a month after they stop taking applications.

“The most nerve-wracking time is after the home visit. You keep your figures crossed and check the mail every day. You always have it in the back of your head.”

A letter arrived inviting them to a Habitat meeting. There were several Habitat people in the room when they heard the good news. Doug Ruskin asked the couple, “How does it feel?”.

“My wife and I looked at each other and I said, ‘I don’t really understand the question. How does what feel?’ Doug said, how does it feel to be a recipient of a Habitat house on Martha’s Vineyard. The tears started flowing and you realize that you are starting a new chapter in your life.”

Mr. Thomas said it is overwhelming to realize that his family does not have to worry about housing on the Vineyard anymore.

Habitat Helps

“We are delighted to be putting Island families into homes that will stabilize their lives and allow them to grow from there,” Mr. Ruskin told The Times. “It’s what we do.”

He said that Habitat looks at three factors when choosing perspective homeowners. They have to have a need and be able to pay a mortgage; they must be willing to partner with Habitat to help them get out the word about Habitat; and they must be willing to contribute sweat equity, 500 hours of work, on their own home.

“Most of our homeowners had substandard housing, really expensive rentals, high heating costs, deteriorating properties with landlords not paying attention,” Mr. Ruskin said. “Some were doing the Island shuttle, moving seasonally, and really paying for it. We have helped people who where essentially homeless during the summer.”

Part of a community partnership, Habitat makes sure the costs fit the homeowners ability to pay. The owners usually buy the house with a 20-year no-interest mortgage that Habitat holds. The cost is geared to a formula that ensures their cost of home ownership doesn’t exceed 25 percent of their gross income, according to Mr. Ruskin. “We want to make sure that they can comfortably deal with the mortgage,” he said.

The land is owned by the Island Housing Trust and leased to the home owner for $50 per month for 99 years, ensuring that the house will always remain in the affordable housing pool. If the homeowners choose to sell in the future they will receive whatever equity has accrued and the next buyer must qualify as an affordable housing homeowner.

The houses are built using donated time, donated materials, and donated funds. Significant funds have come from Community Preservation Act funds (CPA) in their last few houses, according to Mr. Ruskin. “CPA funds have been a major boon to affordable housing Island-wide in the last five or six years,” he said.

Habitat plans to start another house project before the end of this year. It will be their 11th since Habitat MV began. “We are working to gear up our staffing and volunteer base and our donations to allow us to build faster and to build more houses,” he said.

For more information go to habitatmv.org.