The team at Habitat for Humanity Choptank, which is headquartered in Trappe, envisions “a world where everyone has a decent, affordable place to live.” As CEO JoAnn Hansen would say, they’re accomplishing this in Dorchester and Talbot Counties one neighborhood at a time. Right now, that neighborhood is on Wells Street in Cambridge.
“We plan on building twelve new houses,” explained Hansen. “We originally purchased a number of properties pre-COVID on tax sale. And then additional properties we’ve purchased over time through landlords who were using the houses as rentals, and we looked at whether those house could be rehabilitated and they couldn’t. And so we ended up tearing those down. In that place will go new houses.”
With a grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Community Reinvestment Act funds, HFHC is building eight of those twelve dwellings. The first is already occupied, the house at 610 Wells Street will become a home shortly, another home buyer will take possession this fall, and a fourth will move in by the end of the year.
“The home dedication for  is scheduled for August 26th at 9am,” said Hansen. “And that’s an event that we invite, obviously, the friends and family members of the home buyer, but we also invite the community to participate. It’s an open house that allows people to come in and tour the house before the home buyer takes possession and moves in. And it’s just really a nice celebration.”
At the same time, Habitat is using a Community Development Block Grant from the city for the infrastructure. This will include new sewers, a sidewalk, street lamps, and road repaving, to be finished in early November.
Four more homes will be done with people in them by July of next year, and the last four of twelve will be finished the year after that. Meanwhile, the area around these new houses might benefit, as well.
“What starts to happen when we build new homes in the neighborhood, it starts to spark home improvements,” said Hansen. “Not just by Habitat but by homeowners, by landlords, seeing people take pride in their neighborhood. I think how people feel even walking through the neighborhood, because you can just see hope. You can see it, you can feel it.”
So, Habitat also offers a repair program, which they fund with other government grants. They try to focus on areas where they’re building new houses, and in this case the state has allocated resources to be used specifically around Pine Street, which connects to Wells. The owners who benefit from the repairs are obligated to remain in their homes for five years, because Habitat and the state don’t want to see public funds go toward houses that will be flipped and sold.
The staff at HFHC spends time educating homeowners seeking repairs in order to decide if staying in their house is even the best thing to do. After all, there may not actually be enough money available to make all the needed fixes. The cost of lead abatement and asbestos removal alone could run upwards of $75,000. Then there might be electrical, drywall, plumbing, mold, siding, roof, and/or foundation.
Since HFHC also works in Talbot County, they have ten houses currently under construction in Easton in some phase, all with home buyers attached. Four of them are modulars on Prospect Avenue, and six are in the Hill District, with five being new homes and one a rehab. But, for the foreseeable future, most of Habitat Choptank’s endeavors will be concentrated in Dorchester, where they own property.
After the twelve houses on Wells Street and a few on Lincoln Terrace, also in Cambridge, HFHC will take on a potential twelve-home neighborhood on Camper Street. It would be a major project because of the opportunity to shape the whole area.
“First time we’ll put in a road to service the houses,” said Director of Construction Wayne Suggs. “This will be the first time we put in all the infrastructure including the roadway and everything.”
Suggs has had a significant impact at Habitat Choptank, where he’s been head of construction for eight years. One of the first things he did when he started the job was to examine all the occupied Habitat houses and make notes about the structural challenges he saw, such as the wear and tear the wooden porches were showing. Now they’re built out of concrete with brick accents and steps. In fact, there’s no wood anywhere on the outside of the house, but instead a composite material that is sometimes made to look like wood. Hand rails and columns are vinyl in fiberglass, and cement fiber board is used on the siding. The floors inside look like hardwood but they’re luxury vinyl planks.
“We really go above and beyond trying to use materials that are going to last for a very long time,” said Suggs.
The durable materials make up one of the three major elements necessary for a successful Habitat home. Another is energy efficiency. Insulation is sprayed in the walls, the attic is over-insulated, and high-quality windows are installed. The house is constructed to be so tight that a special fan must be put into the bathroom and run 24 hours a day to keep the air quality correct.
Accessibility is the third major element. There is a bedroom and full bath on the first floor of the two-story houses, along with the laundry room and water heater. This is so, as the residents grow older, they’ll have everything they need without having to go upstairs. If someone is in a wheelchair, they’ll find the lowered light switches and raised electrical outlets easily reachable.
“Most of our home buyers stay in their houses for their life, and that’s true across the nation for Habitat for Humanity,” said Suggs. “I am very proud of the houses that we build. We build a quality home.”
None of the construction would be possible without HFHC’s volunteers. But Hansen laments that it’s become more difficult to recruit new ones. People aren’t retiring at the age they used to, and when they do retire they’re not looking to make a long-term commitment, preferring to work on an “episodic” basis.
Suggs wants to make sure prospective volunteers know they don’t need any building experience. “I’ve talked to so many people. ‘Oh, I don’t know how to build a house.’ Okay, well, you don’t need to. You just need to be willing to help out in whatever way that you’re physically able to help out.”
After the Camper Street project, which would take two to three years, HFHC has their sights set on a 33-acre parcel of land off Mace’s Lane. That’s five years away, but they’re currently collecting data for it through local focus groups with key community leaders. Next, they’ll conduct a survey of current renters and homeowners in the area of the property to get concerns, ideas, and suggestions before making a drawing of the project.
“We won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs,” said Hansen, “but our heart’s desire is to meet as many of the community needs as we can and to capitalize on the strengths that this community, this city, and the county already bring.”