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'Home for Christmas' Takes On New Meaning For Princeton Habitat for Humanity Family

Matthew Hersh

It is the look of Christmas. Michelle Warren-Williams has her eight-foot tree trimmed to the last piece of garland, bells that chime when she opens the door to her home, and pictures of each of her four children set carefully on the mantel of her fireplace.

When you sit down in this warm and well-kept Leigh Avenue abode, it looks and feels as if she and her family have lived there for years. In fact, Ms. Warren-Williams and her family moved in only five months ago after volunteers from Habitat for Humanity helped her put the finishing touches on the two-family duplex that has been in the works for four years.

"With my income and my being single, they [Habitat for Humanity] thought they could help," Ms. Warren-Williams said. "I just got lucky."

"Lucky" is a modest way to describe the culmination of over 500 hours of "sweat equity" toward the construction of her house and other Habitat projects, including locations in Trenton and Lawrence.

Working as a lab assistant at Princeton University for nine years while supporting her family while previously living at her parents' house in Ewing, Ms. Warren-Williams took steps two years ago to get into affordable housing in the area, which included applying for the Habitat for Humanity program. Once she submitted her application, she said she had prepared herself to carry on with her life and wait for news.

She did not have to wait long. "They just called me up and told me I was chosen," she said. However, it is not always that simple. Ms. Warren-Williams had to commit to a project that would not produce results for two years or possibly more. Working full-time, making time to raise four children, and devote 500 hours to the Habitat project was not easy, but well worth it, she said. "They accepted me into the program a good year and half before the [Leigh Avenue] house was even started, so I was already working on a house in Trenton," she said.

The house was purchased by Princeton Township from a private owner in 1999 for $72,500 and, in turn, sold to Habitat for Humanity for $1. The not-for-profit organization financed all construction costs and recruited volunteers and families involved in the program to work on-site. Criteria for the program require that an applicant currently lives in sub-standard, unaffordable, or over-crowded housing, and can afford a housing payment of approximately $500 per month that includes principle, maintenance escrow, taxes, and insurance.

The Leigh Avenue house was applied to Princeton Township's affordable housing requirements. Each New Jersey municipality is required by state law to have a percentage of its housing be classified as "affordable."

Additionally, the application and selection process involves the Family Selection Committee that reviews the applications and works with applicants to obtain credit checks, references, income tax forms, and pay stubs.

Further, the program requires that a family must have a willingness to see out a project. According to Peter Madison, executive director of the Trenton Chapter for Habitat for Humanity, this factor is the decisive element as to who will ultimately qualify for the program. He said that families like Ms. Warren-Williams' are perfect for the program.

"Some people didn't understand the need to put in the 'sweat equity' hours and just didn't want to do that," he observed.

Ms. Warren-William said she devoted approximately one to two days per week toward the project and that her children got involved in the process as well.

"I think my oldest son experienced a lot because he got to to know how to do things around the house that he didn't know before," she said. "The kids are very happy with what they have, even the younger ones."

The Nature of the Habitat

Affordable housing often consists of units owned and operated by investors of not-for-profit groups that rent to people for rates below market levels, Mr. Madison noted. However, for Habitat projects "the people actually end up owning the property," he said. Owners are then given a 20-year, interest free mortgage for the cost of materials, which, in the case of the Leigh Avenue project, was about $65,000.

"It's pretty inexpensive because the monthly mortgage payment was about $250," he said. Mr. Madison added that, including real estate taxes and insurance, monthly payments in this case are approximately $450 per month. "It's significantly less than renting an apartment and helps the buyer build equity," he said.

Further, when the Warren-Williams family is ready to move, Habitat for Humanity has the right to buy the house back at cost, giving the owner a consumer price index factor. However, the seller does not get the market rate for prime Princeton property near schools and town. "It prevents people from speculating and keeps the house affordable [for the next family]," Mr. Madison said.

He also stressed that unlike other modes of affordable housing, Habitat projects are largely built by volunteers. By his estimate, approximately 85 percent of the people working on-site are volunteers. Professional plumbers and electricians were brought in to work on Ms. Warren-Williams' house as well, according to Mr. Madison.

History of the Home

As Mr. Madison pointed out, the Leigh Avenue site was a "good choice" to use for the Habitat project. For a family that supports children, it is virtually next to Community Park School, and a 10-minute walk to Princeton High School. The house is on a wide, quiet street and is about15-minutes walking distance to town. The scenario was set for a two-family duplex, but Mr. Madison said there was extensive work to be done to the property.

"[The previous owner] left piles of stuff inside, so we had to clear that out," he said. "We needed to install a sump pump, drainage pipes, a new roof, and redo the floor structure of the second floor."

"It may have been a retail store with some upstairs apartments at one point," he said, making reference to large, "storefront-type" bay windows on the first floor.

Habitat for Humanity is an ecumenical, non-discriminative Christian organization that is responsible for the building of 100,000 homes worldwide. Habitat mortgages are issued on a no-profit, zero-interest basis.

Since the inception of the Trenton chapter in 1986, 47 houses have been built in the greater Princeton-Trenton area.

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