Feature: October 11, 1995
RESCUING A HOUSE FROM RUIN
Students Build a Home in Trenton for a Low-Income Family
BY KATHRYN F. GREENWOOD
A dilapidated house in Trenton has drawn Princeton students away from their idyllic, Ivy-covered campus and into an urban neighborhood less than 10 miles away. They have dug ditches, set beams, hammered nails, scraped walls, and painted trim. They have come together to help their neighbors; they have come together to build hope.
About three years ago, a group of students formed a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity and "adopted" a three-story house on Wiley Avenue. Their mission: to rebuild it for a low-income Trenton family. Habitat is a church-based housing ministry that works in partnership with low-income families around the world. It uses no public funds and relies largely on volunteer labor to build and renovate homes.
On a sunny morning last February, an empty Heineken box and broken beer bottles were strewn on the street in front of 25 Wiley, which sits near a housing project. Students arrived by 9 a.m. to spackle and sand. They were nearing the end of a long renovation project, rife with setbacks and frustration. With little direction from their construction foreman, senior Ron Roessler, the students got to work. The task was tedious; some worked silently, others chatted about what they'd been up to lately. Before long, plaster dust covered their clothes and frosted their hair.
Scraps of wood, tools, garbage cans, tape, and brooms were scattered throughout the house. Dust covered everything. Written on some of the walls were lists of to-dos: 1) tape, 2) spackle, 3) sand/sponge, 4) prime, 5) paint. The end was in sight. Several months later, the house was completed and the Lozadas, a family of seven, moved into their new home in June. For the students who had worked on the house from the beginning, the dedication ceremony on May 7 was a day that at times they doubted would ever come.
Built in 1850, 25 Wiley had been vacant for 20 years; the last tenants were evicted. Before leaving, they turned on the water, letting it run for three days. The house had become public property. When the students got their first look at it in October 1992, just getting inside was a challenge. They had to break down the door, said senior Shetal Shah, one of the student leaders. He was armed with insect repellent. "It was my job to spray everything and make sure it was dead." They found crack vials, a rusted machete, an unidentifiable dead animal, and a pit, seven feet deep, in the back of the house. It took eight months to clean out the house and get it to the point where they could start renovating.
With the guidance of several alumni and local residents, they gutted it, laid a new foundation, framed it, reshingled the roof, built an addition to the back of the house, re-sided the exterior, and replaced the windows; essentially, they rebuilt the entire house. With warped supporting beams and no right angles left, "We had to cut everything separately to fit in this house," said Eric Hines '95, a civil-engineering major who was one of the construction supervisors. "So when you take a bunch of unskilled people and put them on a house like this, it's a recipe for disaster."
Students had been volunteering for the trenton-area affiliate of Habitat for Humanity before the Princeton chapter was founded. Holly R. Biola '95 first got students involved in hammering nails during her freshman year. At that point, like most Habitat volunteers, they worked on a different house every week. Hines came up with the idea of starting a chapter and adopting one house. "If you keep coming back to the same house, it becomes a home," he said. "With Habitat, building houses is an excuse to build community."
The Princeton chapter operates under the supervision of Trenton Area Habitat, which-skeptical of the students' ability to stick with a project-was reluctant to hand over a house to them. "I can understand their point of view," said Shah, who admits the students didn't really know what they were getting into. In fact, after they had been at it for only a few months, the group stopped working for a couple of months. Hines, the student force behind 25 Wiley, was frustrated and burned out. "I thought I knew what I was doing, but I wasn't grown up enough yet to understand how to take on something like this." He added, "I felt really bad, I never wanted to hear the name Habitat again." Local residents Dan Thomas, Nick Wilson '51, and Ted Thomas '51, who had started working on the house with the students, kept at it when they stopped coming. "They were setting an important precedent for us," said Hines.
From the beginning, Dan Thomas (no relation to Ted) was their mentor. A longtime Habitat volunteer, a retired minister, and vice-president of the Princeton Theological Seminary, he took them under his wing. He was the construction supervisor, accountable to Habitat for the project. "He was the only one crazy enough to do it and be that hopeful about us and have faith in us," said Hines. "That's exactly what we needed." Thomas literally and figuratively laid the foundation for 25 Wiley. He eventually had to stop working on the house as he battled with his second bout of prostate cancer. Thomas died in December 1993, but his spirit continues to permeate the house and the memories of all those involved with it. "He wanted to get young people involved," said Wilson, who with Hines took over Thomas's duties leading the project. "He was very dedicated, as good a Christian as you'll every find."
In honor of their first construction supervisor, the students created the Dan Thomas Memorial Internship, which provides for two students to work over the summer with Trenton Area Habitat, learning the construction and leadership skills Thomas had mastered. Last summer's interns, Julie Hunting '97 and Jeff Adams '97, also studied housing and urban issues in a workshop with Robert Gutman, a visiting professor of architecture, and worked on designs for future Habitat houses with Patrick Burke *93 of The Hillier Group, a Princeton-based architectural firm.
The house on wiley is the biggest one that trenton Area Habitat has ever undertaken, said David McAlpin '50, the president and founder of Trenton Area Habitat. The house has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, mud room, kitchen, and a patio in the back yard.
It would have been cheaper and easier to raze 25 Wiley. But simply tearing down the house and building a new one would have been missing the point of Habitat, said Hines. "The problem symbolically is much deeper than getting a house built. The problem is about refurbishing inner cities, and about breathing new life into things. It's not about saying, 'You're worthless to us, we're going to throw you away now.' It's about saying 'We have faith and we have hope in you.'" The goal of Habitat, he said, is to raise awareness, raise funds, build houses, and build community. It's about the "working poor and allowing people stock in their future and their livelihood; giving people a chance who are really working hard to get over the hump to not be pressed down by the system."
Because most of the students were inexperienced in construction, they made mistakes. The most frustrating one was building the wrong kind of exterior firewall. They spent about three months last winter, in the rain and cold, putting up heavy sheets of interior instead of exterior firewall. About three quarters of the way through, they realized their error. For Shah, it was "heartbreaking." At that point in the project, he said, he "never saw an end to it."
After some brooding, the group decided that, rather than rebuild the firewall, it would be easier to purchase the adjoining vacant lot, precluding the need for a firewall to protect any house that might later be built on it. It took several months to clear the title but, thanks to Wilson, an attorney, Habitat did acquire the property. The students tore down the firewall and put up house wrap, base, tar paper, and siding with the help of Peter Erdman '50, another Habitat volunteer.
Last year, students volunteered for any one of three four-hour shifts: Friday afternoon, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon. During any shift, between eight and 12 volunteers worked. Students from eating clubs, fraternities, the Student Volunteer Council (SVC), and Urban Action came out periodically to work. The Princeton Habitat chapter also tried to attract faculty members and administrators to the site, but only one-Dean of Religious Life Joseph C. Wil-liamson-came out. The Nassau Presbyterian Church and Princeton Theological Seminary also sent volunteers. The students did about half the work on the house, but "we probably made most of the mistakes," said Hines, who spent a summer working on 25 Wiley. "We were the fiber running through the project."
After finishing 25 Wiley and seeing a family move in, the students lost no time in adopting another project in Trenton, on Oak Street. They started their new house from scratch on Memorial Day weekend, when they recruited some alumni who returned to campus for Reunions to work on it. This summer, Julie Hunting and Jeff Adams and other Habitat volunteers made progress on the house. The volunteers laid the foundation, framed it, and built the roof. Students from Urban Action worked on the house during orientation week. This fall, the Princeton Habitat chapter will start installing Sheetrock and siding. The students' goal is to finish the Oak Street house by Commencement.
Pounding nails provides students with a reality check and a break from the hours spent in labs, at desks, in carrels, and with books. Shah, whose first task was digging a three-foot ditch around the base of 25 Wiley so other volunteers could examine the foundation's structural integrity, says the project kept him sane: "Some people have psychotherapy, I have Habitat." For Michael Switow, a graduate student in the Woodrow Wilson School, working with a hammer or paint brush is a welcome escape from political theory. "The Woodrow Wilson School is a very small world and it's nice to get out of it," he says. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and Gabon, Switow had experienced the fulfillment that comes from helping others. "Being in school is a very selfish period. I need to do community service on a regular basis."
"Habitat is a very real way for me to be thankful for what I have," says Hines, who has been involved with Habitat since he started a chapter at his high school in Durham, North Carolina. "Your education puts you in a position of responsibility. I do it because it keeps giving me so much. My relationship with the house is very deeply connected to my relationship with the Lord. God's got an idea about what He wants me to see out of this whole thing."
Ron Roessler, who on the project wore a cap that said "craftsman," started out coming every other week, but before long, he was working every shift and teaching other volunteers. One Saturday morning he woke with a fever, but still put in a shift. If it's a choice between studying for an important test or building a house, he'll choose the latter. Habitat, he said on the site last winter, is really "a part of me now." John Lettow '95 says that after a while, 25 Wiley "started to take over my life." A chemical engineering major, he enjoyed the opportunity to interact with friends in an unstructured atmosphere and to learn how they view the "world outside of Princeton."
In addition to the benefits Habitat brings to volunteers, it also provides a future for families who may otherwise not be able to own their own homes. So-called "partner families" are required to put in 500 hours of "sweat equity" on their own house or other Habitat projects. The Lozadas, who have five children ranging in age from five to eighteen, finished their hours in three months, a Habitat record. They had been waiting for two years to move into their new home, which carries a 20-year, no-interest mortgage. Each month they pay about $300, which includes taxes and insurance. Partner families' mortgage payments are put into a local "Fund for Humanity" and recycled to build new houses.
Throughout the construction, the students treaded carefully in the neighborhood. They knew some of the neighbors and occasionally borrowed water and electricity from them. Slowly they developed some friendships, but they were not always welcome. One day, Lettow and Hines left the site to buy some sandwiches at a local deli. No sooner had the two gotten out of the car than they were solicited for drugs and sex. When they told the prostitute that they were working with Habitat, she said their efforts wouldn't do any good, and they might as well leave.
Not only did they stay, but the Princeton Habitat chapter is currently trying to aquire another lot on Wiley. The Lozadas' house is the only Habitat house in their neighborhood. Ideally, Habitat builds houses in clusters so the owners can support each other. Patrick Burke, Julie Hunting, and Jeff Adams are designing a house for the site and hope to submit a proposal to Trenton's housing department this fall.
Habitat means something different to everyone involved. To the Lozadas, it has meant a hard-earned home of their own. To the students, it has been a lesson in perseverance. Roessler has learned that "If you get people together who really care, you can do anything. We helped to give a house to someone who didn't have one. I don't know any greater joy that I've had than being able to finish this house."
For McAlpin, who has been the heart and soul behind Trenton Area Habitat since its founding in 1987, Habitat "combines a number of truths, a number of basic principles. It is based upon Christian convictions and the Christian concept of love and service. It challenges the poor and those who have the material wherewithal to work. And they work together." It also provides an opportunity for the poor to take responsibility for their lives and for those who are well-off to care for others, he said. "It's not charity in the sense of just giving money. It's partnership."
Kathryn F. Greenwood is PAW's staff writer.