Habitat for Humanity events help build awareness, positivity

— Created March 10, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

It is “Women Build” week for Habitat for Humanity, and while COVID has forced the national organization to re-imagine many events, Habitat for Humanity of Island County has a couple of notable happenings taking place this week.

Women and Housing

First, all those interested are invited to attend a virtual community conversation on Women and Housing Thursday from 3 to 4 p.m. The topic will be affordable housing in Island County and specifically how it affects women. The panel will feature local female leaders and Habitat homeowners. Information on how to join this Zoom presentation online can be found at islandcountyhabitat.com.

“It’s about how affordable housing is really the foundation for all other things,” said Kathy Blair, resource development director for HHIC. “You can afford food, but not if 60 to 70 percent of your income goes toward paying rent. Habitat believes housing should be no more than 30 percent of someone’s income, which allows people to save, get a better education, have less illness, all kinds of things. We’ll look at what is going on in Island County now.”

“The topic that people contact me about the most is COVID vaccines. The topic they contact me about second-most often is affordable housing,” said Island County Commissioner Melanie Bacon, who will be one of the panelists speaking Thursday. “Many people are concerned about this. And as the housing value has increased (up 15 percent in just the last year), so has that concern.”

According to figures from Habitat for Humanity, in 2019 one in seven households in Washington state was spending at least half of its income on housing. The severe cost burden put on those households leaves little room for expenses like food, health care and other necessities. In 2019, the fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in the state was $1,445. In order to afford that and meet the 30 percent benchmark Blair mentioned, someone would need to earn $27.78 per hour, working full time, or $57,783 annually. The state minimum wage is currently $13.69 per hour, so someone earning minimum wage and working 40 hours a week makes less than half that amount.

That adds up to a big problem with a ripple effect felt in many other areas.

“Housing is the number one cause of financial insecurity here and nationwide,” said Carol Squire, executive director of Good Cheer Food Bank in Langley. “And financial insecurity is the largest cause of food insecurity. It sounds obvious, but we need to help more people and their representatives in government recognize this very direct cause and effect link.

“Let’s put it this way:  this is the primary reason for the existence of food banks,” Squire continued. “Because of our generous community support, we are able to make sure people don’t go hungry. But that doesn’t take away our food bank shoppers’ financial insecurity and all the emotional and physical difficulties this causes.” 

“The workforce on the island basically has no place to live, and that’s true from one end of the island to other,” said Blair. “Employers don’t want their employees commuting on the ferry – and what $13-an-hour employee is going to take the ferry? I think the community is aware it’s an issue, but I don’t think they realize how it affects the community economically.”

 Affordable housing is a huge problem in Island County as it is virtually everywhere. But it’s a problem that impacts women more than men, something else of which Blair said people may be unaware.

“So, just from statistics we have, single parent households are predominately – 75 percent – led by women,” she said. “Sixty percent of children living in poverty are in households led by women. Women pay higher rates for home loans and there is still a wage gap between men and women. Start throwing in race, gender identity, and it snowballs from there. Eighty percent of households in Section 8 housing are led by women. And this holds true for Island County.”

“I don’t know that there’s as much awareness of how the lack of affordable housing disproportionately affects women,” Bacon said. “I hope the conversation will serve two purposes: it will help bring that fact out more broadly into the public consciousness, and it will give the community an opportunity to talk through possible paths to solutions.”

“I use every opportunity I can to raise awareness of the largest underlying causes of food insecurity: Lack of living wage jobs and lack of affordable housing,” Squire said. “Of course, these two go hand in hand. This conversation is a very welcome public opportunity to spread this awareness.”

“It’s imperative everything be done…to ensure people have a safe, decent, affordable place to live,” said Blair. “At Habitat, we’re just one piece of the puzzle. We shouldn’t be facing the [affordable housing] crisis we are. It starts with emergency shelter, transitional housing, fair market rentals and affordable home ownership.”

Messages in the Walls

The second in-person opportunity during Women Build week gives those interested the chance to leave positive messages in the walls at HHIC’s current build site. Swing by the site at 1725 SE 10th Avenue in Oak Harbor Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 11a.m. to 3 p.m. and share a message with the families buying the homes by literally writing it on the wall studs.

“It’s a Habitat tradition that’s all about sending out positive energy and surrounding the families buying the home with love as well as a home,” Blair explained. “When you do that, it creates an energy. The families will have seen it while it’s being built, but it just feels good to know those good wishes are all around them. It feels good to do it, too. We want to be positive. We don’t want to always focus on the situation these families are trying to overcome.”

All are welcome to share a message. Masks and social distancing are required for anyone who participates in leaving Messages in the Walls.

“We’re also doing our “Cost of Home” photo contest,” Blair added. “People can do it at the job site when they’re leaving their message. There will be a bunch of things about the cost of home. People can take a picture with one of the message cards and post it to our Facebook page. It explains what having a high cost of home can cause, such as having to choose between paying the mortgage and feeding the kids.”

For those who can’t make it to the build site but want to enter the contest, the Cost of Home signs can be downloaded; participants just have to take a picture holding it and then post it. Three people will win a Habitat thermal bag filled with various treats. Details are available online at islandcountyhabitat.com.