Tuesday, February 10, 2004
The house that love built

By DEON LACKEY, Chronicle Staff Writer

It's the American dream.

The Gallatin Valley affiliate of Habitat for Humanity dedicated its 30th house Sunday afternoon, more than any other chapter in the state.

The new owners are John Tomlinson, an employee for Gallatin Valley furniture, and his wife, Shawna, a stay-at-home mom who homeschools their four daughters. The longtime Bozeman residents made the move to Belgrade for their new home.

The 1,100 square-foot house offers a pretty view of the Bridger Mountains. Every room reflects the personality of its new owners: the girls' rooms are lime green in one and pink and purple in the other; the living room is a soothing moss and windows stream in light. Even with the stacks of boxes at the dedication, it already has the feeling of home.

Because of the lower land prices, Habitat is building almost all of their new homes in Belgrade. In 1991, when the chapter formed, a lot cost $10,000. The lots in the River Rock, where the Tomlinsons' and two other Habitat house are, go for $27,500.

"Land is what goes up and up and up," explained Jennifer Frank, the director of the local affiliate. The developers in River Rock are giving a special deal to Habitat; at the signing of a new house, they give back $1,000 to the organization. Habitat is working on grants to fund the construction of 14 more houses in the subdivision.

The two other Habitat houses are in the beginning stages of construction. "One of our goals is to build five houses a year," Frank said, "to have homes going at all times and at different stages."

According to Habitat President Amanda Cater, Habitat affiliates in major cities like Detroit build more than five houses a year; most build less than two. "That 200 regular volunteers can do that kind of work is pretty spectacular," Cater said.

"We don't have a long waiting list, which you would think we would," Cater mused. The proportion of homeowners in the Gallatin Valley's population is almost 10 percent lower than the national average. Habitat homeowners "raise their own self-esteem and expectations of what they can accomplish," Cater added. "Many people who buy our homes have not been successful at other things, and now they have the experience of someone believing in them."

Habitat has three criteria for selecting "partner families": need, willingness to work on the project, and the ability to repay the loan. "Need" usually comes down to living conditions like children of different sexes sharing a room or spending more than 30 percent of household income on rent.

Because of the "need" criterion, some people equate Habitat homes with charity, a perception Cater strongly disagrees with. "It's not charity," she emphasized. "It's an opportunity, it's a chance."

Every partner family has to invest 500 hours of "sweat equity" into their house by building other houses or by volunteering at Habitat's ReStore. In exchange they get to purchase the home at cost through an interest-free loan.

"It's not like they're giving you a house," John Tomlinson explained. "You have to put a down payment on it and pay the mortgage. The money ... goes to the organization, to help build more houses for more families."

Habitat dedicates every house they build with prayer and the presentation of a Bible. The group is equal opportunity, but its roots are Christian, buoyed by the Psalm, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it."

"This house was totally built by love," Tomlinson said. "They built it with their own sweat, their own blood. There were women who we didn't know, writing on the studs, 'God bless this house,' in the walls, in the crawl space. It's overwhelming."

For more information on volunteering or applying to be a partner family, call Habitat for Humanity at 388-8225.