Habitat for Humanity of Island County is taking on a big renovation job — itself.
The local chapter of the national organization devoted to making home ownership affordable is working on rebranding and rebooting its image and mission.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about Habitat for Humanity and the families we serve,” said Orin Kolaitis, CEO and executive director. “I think most people would be surprised to know that we serve families that make between 30 percent to 80 percent of the area median income.”
Area median income, or AMI, is the midpoint of a region’s income distribution – half of families in a region earn more than the median and half earn less than the median.
Qualifying to become a homeowner through the Habitat for Humanity model of sweat equity, volunteer labor and low monthly mortgage payments doesn’t mean applicants have to be on the very bottom of the regional income scale, Kolaitis said.
After serving as Habitat’s construction manager for more than four years, Kolaitis took over executive duties last summer. The nonprofit organization is overseen by a board of directors and employs 16 people, half of them fulltime.
It depends on more than 150 volunteers to staff its two stores in Freeland and Oak Harbor and to help with home construction and repairs.
Living in the 51 local Habitat houses built in the past 20 years are a range of individuals and families — working moms with young kids, retired seniors, young couples and single women. Many of them were unable to realize the dream of home ownership because rents kept increasing while their salaries remained flat with no cost-of-living increases.
When rents exceed 30 percent of gross monthly income, the possibility of buying a house gets further and further out of reach, Kolaitis said.
“I hope to increase our community outreach so people can have a better understanding about Habitat,” he said. “I think in turn people will realize that they themselves or someone they know can better their living conditions and achieve their goals of home ownership.”
Habitat is now accepting applications for two-bedroom, one-bath homes in Oak Harbor and Coupeville until Feb. 8.
The first Habitat for Humanity local chapter started in San Antonio, Texas in 1976. It’s now in 1,400 communities and 70 countries from Argentina to Zaire.
Construction costs are kept low with donations or reduced prices of building supplies and appliances from many partner stores and contractors.
Profits from Habitat’s two Whidbey used furniture and building supply stores in Oak Harbor and Freeland also help. Those stores are also on a campaign to get the word out about the many aspects of Habitat, and they’re undergoing some changes.
“It’s surprising to me how many customers really don’t know what we do,” said Tony Persson, who was recently hired to fill a new position overseeing both Habitat retail locations. “I ask customers if they are aware of where their dollars are going and a lot of them figure we’re just another secondhand store selling furniture.”
Freeland’s store, which specializes in material for construction and home improvement, has been reorganized under store manager John Schmidt. Paint cans are neatly lined up and tools and trim nails easy to find.
It also sells new items, such as paint brushes, bed sets and carpets in a range of sizes.
“And we have a plethora of light fixtures as you can see,” said volunteer Kathy Swenson, pointing to the ceiling.
Both stores have seen profits grow in recent years. That trend may mean the organization can double the number of houses it builds annually from two to four.
At the Oak Harbor store, a second floor now sprawls with couches, dining room sets, entertainment centers, lamps, wall art and more. Persson went around lowering prices as one of his first tasks as stores director.
He wants inventory to change more often.
“These older style entertainment centers just don’t sell. No one has those big TVs or stereos anymore,” he said. “I could mark them down to $5 and they’re still here.”
Lisa Tarpley, Oak Harbor store manager, said appliances, such as refrigerators, ranges, microwaves and toasters, “fly out of here.” Previous store manager Whitey Kirschenmann recently retired.
Tarpley, who started as a volunteer, said both stores are trying to bring in more “gently used” donations and to let tradespeople and contractors know they can bring in their leftovers for a tax write-off.
“Then none of it ends up in the landfill,” she said.
Every year, Habitat figures it keeps more than 3,000 tons of material from being tossed.
It’s also gearing up for the annual Women Build event on March 8 and 9. The program encourages women of all different backgrounds and skills to devote at least one day to help construct a new house in Oak Harbor.
In past years, Habitat received local grants to help host the event. However, that funding has ended so the organization is seeking sponsorships from companies. Women volunteering for the event are also asked to raise a minimum of $25 each.
Additionally, Habitat offers A Brush With Kindness program. It helps restore homes with exterior painting and preservation for homeowners who are unable to afford the maintenance work.
New store discounts are in the works and the chapter’s website and Facebook page are being revamped. In the spring, the Oak Harbor store plans to host its first wine reception where donated artwork and store merchandise will be offered as silent auction items.
“Everything is going to get a facelift,” Persson said. “We want to be more proactive, we want to improve our image in the community and we want people to clearly understand we’re not just another used furniture store.”