CASPER, Wyo. — On Saturday morning, Samantha Moravetz stood in what will be the living room of her home in the new Harris Crossing subdivision.
“We did the siding on my house, we framed it out, we did the painting, and I got to help with all of it,” she said.
This moment was unthinkable for Samantha just a few years ago, when she and her young son were living in an assisted housing apartment while struggling to pay off $17,000 in medical debt after a car accident.
A longtime friend had recently moved into a new Habitat for Humanity home and encouraged Samantha to apply. After five attempts, she was finally selected in 2020.
“We started construction on my house on Nov. 20, 2021,” she said. “It’s been an amazing journey, and I get to help everybody else build theirs.”
Habitat for Humanity, the Heart of Wyoming’s Harris Crossing is an entirely new subdivision on a plot of land that before 2017 was just a field of grass. It sits next to established neighborhoods in southern Casper just west of Beverly Street, and is a significant departure from previous projects. Three houses are currently under construction, and when they’re done, the total number of houses on the cul-de-sac will be 13.
Habitat for Humanity, the Heart of Wyoming’s sole mission is to provide a home ownership path to families of low to moderate income, according to executive director Tess Mittelstadt.
“They build their own home, they purchase their home with an affordable mortgage, and then they’re a homeowner,” she said.
There are more than 1,100 Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the nation, said Tess, and Wyoming’s is its own nonprofit. “I think it’s very, very important that people understand we’ve been able to build the Harris Crossing subdivision because of funding we’ve received from Natrona County,” she said.
The qualifications for a Habitat home are narrow, according to Tess. “We’re trying to connect with that specific group of people who have financial stability, but can’t make the jump to homeownership.”
After a candidate is approved, they have to provide a minimum of 150 hours of work on a home, which doesn’t necessarily need to be their home. They’re led by Habitat’s construction manager Shawn Martz, who also oversees the house designs. Numerous other volunteers routinely help on projects, while electrical and plumbing is handled by licensed contractors.
Families who are accepted in the Habitat program are typically renting in income-restricted housing, Tess said. Part of Habitat’s goal is to free up space in rentals by offering new housing to families. “We believe that everything’s a little bit of a continuum,” she said.
Habitat homes were typically built on “infill” plots, sometimes with older homes that were moved onto the plot of available land. “That had more to do with access to property,” Tess said. “Prior to 2017, my predecessor had had this kind of vision of what we could do if we didn’t have one lot, but we had many lots in the same location.”
Developing a plot of land isn’t necessarily unique, Tess said, but it is for a nonprofit like Habitat.
“So there are engineers, and there were construction firms, and there were all of these people to help us do something that we don’t do on a normal basis,” she said.
“It’s also such a visual statement to say every house on that block was built by Habitat for Humanity,” she said. “Every house on that block was built by volunteers who showed up and who committed their time by building.”
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for safe and accessible housing, something many people don’t have.
“It’s always been important, but I think everybody maybe became a little bit more aware of the space in which they were living,” Tess said, “but it also created all these other pressures on the economy which we’re experiencing that makes access to housing more challenging.”
The median home sale price was up 8.7% compared with September 2020, according to a recent report from the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division. Rental prices have increased 5% so far this year, according to Zumper.com. Nationally, rent prices have spiked more than 17%, according to Apartment List.
Post-pandemic challenges are making new affordable housing construction more difficult nationally. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, market-rate developers are charging higher rents, and projects by builders of rent-restricted projects using tax credits or other government aid are being forced to suspend or walk away from the whole thing.
Income instability paired with inflation has also added pressure on potential Habitat applicants, who already struggle financially, Tess said.
“So what we’re seeing is the cost to provide affordable housing is going up, and the need [for affordable housing] is also going up,” she said.
She describes budgeting for 2021 as “wild” due to fluctuating costs and other unknowns. “We’re preparing to do our budget for the next year, and we’re having that exact same conversation now, which is, ‘How do you plan for prices that you can’t expect?'”
Some building supply orders are taking up to 16 weeks, she said, but since three houses are in various stages of construction, crews can spread out the work if one project stalls. Tess said more volunteers have also stepped up recently to help move the process along with few setbacks.
“It’s a really unique volunteer experience because it’s so hands-on,” she said. “When you show up, you find out what you’re going to be working on, and by the end of the day you have something to show for it in a really tangible way.”
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
Sara Fritsinger and her daughters Charlize, 19, and Ash, 16, hope to be in their new home at Harris Crossing by the end of this year. It seems hard to imagine as she and a crew of volunteers pounded nails into the new framing under a sunny sky just last weekend, but her anticipation is palpable.
She was forced to sell her home after her divorce, and her income decreased after she switched jobs. She lives with her daughters and two cats in a low-income apartment, and giving up home ownership has been a difficult adjustment.
She applied twice and was accepted in January 2021.
“I’ve been helping on the houses for just about a year now,” she said, now finally able to work on her project, which is the 12th home in Harris Crossing. “It’s crazy to think that it’s actually happening because it’s been so long.”
“The cool thing about this project — because this whole cul-de-sac is Habitat — is I’m working with and getting to know my neighbors, which I’ve never done before,” she said.
One of those neighbors, Tifanee Jackson, walked to the construction site to say hello as her 5-year-old daughter, Porter, followed along on her bike. She lives across the street with her boyfriend, daughter and son in a house they closed on in 2019. It’s the first house she’s ever owned.
“I wanted something for my kids,” she said. “I’m a single mom and never thought I’d be able to afford a house.”
“You get in an apartment and you don’t want [the kids] to play out in the parking lot,” she said. “Now it’s like every house here has a kid, so they always have other people to play with.”
Construction manager Shawn Martz started volunteering for Habitat about 20 years ago, and eventually moved into a full-time position there. He guesses he’s worked on more than 20 houses. He said Habitat provides guidelines such as square footage and the number of rooms and bathrooms, but the layouts are done locally.
“Depending on where the lots are, we’ll design the house to fit,” he said. Shawn is also in charge of teaching novice homebuilders tricks of the trade. “You’re not supposed to be scaring the nail in,” he lightheartedly shouts after a few hammer misses from a volunteer.
“You don’t have to be experienced to come out and work on site,” he said. “We’ll train you, or we’ll show you how to do it.”
Samantha’s home is months, perhaps weeks away from being move-in ready, and she’s already making plans.
“I can’t wait to get everything moved in so I can get used to all the new sounds of the house and neighborhood,” she said. “I’ve been telling everybody what I need for my housewarming gift is a barbecue grill.”
After hundreds of hours on construction sites, helping to build her and her neighbor’s new homes, she feels a deep connection to the houses and cul-de-sac.
“I know where the studs are, I know where the pipes are,” she said. She’s not quite ready to call herself “handy,” though.
“I mean, I’m sure I’ll find someone else to come and do the work and say, ‘Hey, this is where it’s at so do whatever you need to.”