Habitat block party planned for Aug. 23
Photo by: 
Julia Jacobson

Saturday mornings brought a bag of mixed emotions for Julie Robinson during the construction of last year’s Habitat for Humanity home. As executive director of Habitat of the Gunnison Valley, Robinson is tasked with immense responsibility.

Financial pressure compounded with the stress of management often took its toll on Robinson’s optimism. Yet, by the end of each work day, the director was overcome with gratification, appreciation and a sense of community.

“It’s like the Army, where they say it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,” said Robinson. “It feels so good knowing that you’re making a difference in someone else’s life.”

Habitat for Humanity of the Gunnison Valley will celebrate 20 years of service during a block party on Aug. 23. While Habitat has been officially operating for two decades, founding member Jerry Kowal remembers three unrecognized years of service needed to establish the groundwork for the organization to build upon.

Kowal — once a professor of environmental design at Western State Colorado University — turned to Habitat as a way to teach his students technical skills. While Kowal was able to instruct students on architectural design in the classroom, physical construction was missing from the curriculum.

“The need for actually getting out and building something was paramount,” he explained.


‘The hidden part of Gunnison’

Yet, Kowal was not alone in laying the foundation for the nonprofit. Various founding members — including current board member Rhonda Connaway — came together with a similar vision.

“No one person ever does anything like that alone,” said Kowal. “I think all of us became aware of the hidden part of Gunnison.”

After gaining affiliate status from Habitat for Humanity International in 1998, the group acquired six single-family homesites on South 12th Street in Gunnison. Their first home was built to Americans with Disabilities Act standards to house a family with special needs. From 1998-2003, Habitat was able to build one home per year on their newly acquired property.

In 2004, Gunnison County Commissioners donated a multi-unit building lot in the Town of Crested Butte to Habitat. The lot created the opportunity to serve two families through one building.

Yet, perhaps one of the organization’s most promising accomplishments was spurred in 2011. At that time, Habitat launched a “land bank” campaign to obtain 1.68 acres of vacant land. With enough funds raised to negotiate a lower purchase price, and subsidized offers from both the landowners and the City of Gunnison, Habitat was able to purchase the lot.

Joy Wills is the current board president. Wills’ late husband, Don, was instrumental in purchasing the land bank. The property — which currently accommodates two houses, and has the capacity to host six homes and a duplex — was designated as Wills Way Community in honor of Don’s devotion to the organization.

“My husband was very civicminded. He was involved with all kinds of organizations, but I think Habitat was nearest to his heart,” said Wills, who hopes to uphold her husband’s legacy. “We just continue to do what we can to enrich our community and the lives of the families that we work with.”

Over the past 20 years, Habitat has provided housing for 22 families. However, the nonprofit doesn’t just give these homes away. According to Wills, there is a comprehensive selection process that accounts for applicants’ income, current living situation and willingness to work with Habitat. In fact, selected applicants must put in 300-400 hours of sweat equity during the construction of their home.

“There is a common misconception that we give these homes away,” Wills said. “The people that qualify to move into these homes have to build these homes.”

Furthermore, homeowners must have sufficient income to pay a mortgage that is 30 percent of their salary.


Buying into a community

Even with the help of homeowners during construction, the nonprofit has encountered significant hardship when it comes to funding their operations. While larger affiliates are able to build 30 homes per year with millions of dollars from major donors, the Gunnison chapter of Habitat relies on small grants and donations that usually only come during construction.

Despite their partnership, Habitat International does not provide any form of financial support for the local organization. In fact, Gunnison’s chapter has to pay Habitat International annual dues for using their logo.

“We struggle really hard to build just every other year,” Robinson explained.

Habitat of the Gunnison Valley is financed in three main ways. The first is through grants from local organizations such as the Community Foundation. Secondly, Habitat depends on individual donations made directly to the nonprofit. The third is donations that come in the form of materials and labor from local contractors and volunteers.

“We are not building luxury homes — we are building simple, decent shelter,” said Robinson.

Despite their financial struggles, Habitat stands by their mission to provide affordable homeownership to individuals and families in need. In Robinson’s eyes, these homes are a long-term investment.

“We believe in home ownership, because people become invested in their community when they can buy into their community,” she said.


Julia Jacobson, Special to the Times