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Habitat for Humanity Northern Arizona names new executive director

From left Eric Wolverton, Habitat for Humanity Northern Arizona executive director, Cristi Olberts, Rick Metzger and Violet Leslie stand in the ReStore, Habitat for Humanity Northern Arizona’s recycled appliance, furniture and lumber store located on South 4th Street in Flagstaff. David Yankus/NHO

Habitat for Humanity of Northern Arizona envisions a community where everyone has a decent place to live. Habitat builds simple, decent, affordable homes for low-income people around Flagstaff and is currently working on building its 16th house.

These homes are built in partnership with the families who will live there - the applicant must put in "sweat equity" in tandem with a group of volunteer builders.

Eric Wolverton, formerly with St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance, is now the executive director for the Flagstaff affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. Wolverton has been with Habitat since October.

"In the food bank world there's a lot of politics and a lot of head-butting," said Wolverton. "But with Habitat what I found is that it is a very strong family feel. There's not competition or anything like that. It's really great to know that I'm part of this kind of a teamwork atmosphere."

According to the organization's website, Habitat for Humanity is "an international, nonprofit faith based housing organization that strives to eliminate poverty housing, bringing people together from all walks of life to work in partnership with those in need, building decent homes in decent neighborhoods."

Habitat for Humanity of Northern Arizona works to eradicate all substandard housing in Flagstaff. In the process Habitat is working to make simple, decent housing a matter of conscience for all citizens of Flagstaff.

Wolverton also formerly worked with the Flagstaff Leadership Program (FLP), which brings together a class of approximately 25 individuals each September to spend nine months learning about the challenges and opportunities facing the greater Flagstaff area. As FLP graduates, they are ready to assume responsibility as community leaders and to serve as a resource for their employers and other organizations that seek to make a positive investment in the community.

While with FLP, Wolverton's group worked with Habitat. His group painted several houses for Habitat as a part of its program called A Brush With Kindness.

"When we're fundraising to build a house, because it's so expensive, we do things like painting so that way we're still rejuvenating the community when these houses are looking kind of shabby," Wolverton said. "We want to help beautify them."

Habitat for Humanity of northern Arizona is one of more than 2,000 Habitat affiliates around the world. Habitat has been helping out in the Flagstaff community since 1994.

Wolverton estimates the average house costs between $80,000 and $90,000 for Habitat to build. Habitat works with the city of Flagstaff to obtain land through its land trust program.

"This is not a huge sum of money, but at the same time it's hard to get that from individual donors because they don't see Habitat as serving basic needs say in comparison to the food bank," Wolverton said. "All the years I was at the food bank I was really lucky as a fundraiser because everybody's been hungry at one point, so they all know what that's like."

Wolverton said the organization is now trying to make sure that the general public knows that they are serving a huge need in the community in terms of affordable housing.

"There's only so much growth that can happen within the city, so whatever private lands that are there, they're very precious," said Wolverton. "So that's why there was a long hiatus for building a house for Habitat, finding the land was nearly impossible in terms of affordability."

While Habitat can build a house for $90,000, Wolverton said the land the house sits on can cost around $80,000. And that's being conservative with Flagstaff land costs.

"We know Flagstaff isn't going to be able to give us this ability forever and ever, that's why we are Habitat of Northern Arizona. So we're already focused strategically to spreading out our efforts to Winslow, Williams, even up to Page and Fredonia," said Wolverton. "It's all in our service area, and those rural communities obviously need affordable housing in a bad way because they don't always have the infrastructure for well-paying jobs. And more importantly it's a great opportunity for Habitat because the land is cheap. For example, we can pay $5,000 for a piece of land in Winslow compared to $90,000 here."

Wolverton said Habitat is currently finalizing its family selection process for its next home. A committee of volunteers reviews all the applications that come in the door.

During this very long process, which involves a lot of paperwork according to Wolverton, the committee chooses who they feel is the right qualifying family. The committee makes its decision based on what the specific needs are for each family and the ability of the family to pay a reduced mortgage rate.

Once family selection is done, Habitat decides where to put the house, and what the house will look like. A construction manager works with another group of volunteers to create the plans and eventually build the house.

Wolverton calls it a "very deliberate system." He added that the home is then unique to the family, and it gives them the opportunity to invest in their future. He said you don't have to be rich to receive a Habitat home, but you have to be responsible.

Habitat hopes to build two homes in 2013. Wolverton said he hopes to double that output next year.

Wolverton spoke about the flexibility of Habitat for Humanity and what makes it such a truly helpful organization by telling his favorite story so far on the job.

"At the last board meeting, there's a homeowner, and she's having a really hard time making her payments," Wolverton said. "She's been living in her home for five years, so she's paid a lot of principle. She said 'you know what I just really can't make ends meet.' So the board decided to extend her mortgage out for another five years. So her payments went from $550 a month to $325, and she's still paying zero percent interest."

All Habitat homeowners pay no interest on loans. The mortgage payments are used to help pay for future projects.

The ReStore, where Habitat recycles items like appliances, furniture, and lumber that would otherwise have gone into landfills, will also be a priority, Wolverton added.

"This year we're celebrating our fifth year of the ReStore," said Wolverton. "My goal is to build the brand. After all, it's not what Habitat does, it's what the community does."

According to Wolverton, increasing Habitat's visibility in the community will also be a focus for the future in order to build larger partnerships of volunteers who help drive the Habitat effort.

Habitat for Humanity of Northern Arizona offices and the ReStore are located at 2016 N. Fourth St., just north of Route 66/Hwy 89.

Wolverton has lived in Flagstaff for 15 years. Habitat for Humanity Headquarters is located in Atlanta.

More information about Habitat for Humanity of Northern Arizona and how to donate is available online at flagstaffhabitat.org.


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