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‘You’re never too old to learn’

Milwaukee Habitat dedicates 19 NSP2 homes, including one for a determined Milwaukee grandmother.
By Julie Gurnon

It’s been a long wait for Claudette Keys. Despite renting the same townhouse since 1973, she never got a break for being a responsible, long-term tenant.

“I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Keys, 65, a native of Milwaukee. “It [rent] keeps going up every year. When I first moved there, it was really reasonable; it included gas and electricity. Now I pay more than $1,000 a month, and the heat isn’t included.”

That all will change. Keys, one of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity’s newest partner homeowners, will move into her new, Energy Star-certified home in the Park West neighborhood in mid-May. Her mortgage payment will be between $500 and $600, with funds held in escrow for taxes and insurance.

Claudette Keys on the front porch of her new Habitat home in the Park West neighborhood of Milwaukee, WI.

Keys’ home and 18 others were dedicated April 30 at a nearby elementary school. As the homeowners arrived with family members and friends, followed by sponsors and volunteers, the small auditorium quickly grew into a festive atmosphere filled with laughter and chatter.

“This is the largest dedication we’ve ever had,” Brian Sonderman, Milwaukee Habitat executive director, said. “And it shows the incredible partnerships that exist in every home that is built.”

Milwaukee Habitat’s surge in new home construction stems from funds awarded by HUD through the second round of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP2). Milwaukee is one of seven affiliates working in partnership with Habitat for Humanity International to use the three-year NSP2 grant.

NSP2 was established by Congress in 2009 to rehabilitate foreclosed homes and redevelop vacant land in communities destabilized by the collapse in the housing market.

The 19 homes dedicated on April 30 are part of the 100 homes Milwaukee Habitat will build by February 2013 with the spark of NSP2 funds.

For Keys, the idea of applying for a Habitat house came from a co-worker at Wal-Mart.

“I was telling her that I was looking for someplace to move, and she suggested Habitat,” she said. “I thought you had to be married to get a Habitat home, but she said that wasn’t true.”

Keys called Milwaukee Habitat shortly thereafter, and her journey with Milwaukee Habitat began.

Although NSP2 gave Milwaukee Habitat the opportunity to build more houses, it didn’t provide all the funding needed to accomplish 100 homes in three years. NSP2 requires the affiliate to contribute about 41 percent of what they receive from nongovernmental sources, making support from local partners a critical component.

In Milwaukee Habitat’s case, the city of Milwaukee is a crucial partner, selling vacant, in-fill lots to the affiliate for $1 each.

New homes built on vacant in-fill lots with partial funding from NSP2 are helping Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity revitalize the Park West neighborhood.

For the 19-home dedication, local partners contributed their labor, in-kind donations and money, including two churches, one church coalition, 11 businesses, 9 foundations and trusts, and hundreds of individuals.

It is this combination of public and private resources that will enable Milwaukee Habitat to help revitalize not only the Park West neighborhood, but the Harambee and Washington Park neighborhoods as well.

Like all Milwaukee Habitat partner homeowners, Keys helped build her home and other Habitat homes. She learned how to put down a hardwood floor, how to install drywall, and how to paint.

“Now after the preparation, I can paint a room in 15 minutes,” she said with pride.

“If something happens in my house and it’s not major, I’m gonna fix it. If I can on go a roof and do shingles, I can do just about anything. You’re never too old to learn.”

Keys isn’t sure what she will do first when she moves into her new home, but she is looking forward to doing one thing before that day comes—handing the keys back to her landlord.

Julie Gurnon is the NSP2 writer/editor for Program Communications, based in Americus.