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Habitat lending a hand

April 09, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

TRI-STATE

Sixty homes.

That's how many Habitat for Humanity houses have been built in the Tri-State area.

Sixty homes that prompted tears of joy from happy new homeowners and, sometimes, cries of protest from worried neighbors.

Say "Habitat for Humanity" and an image likely comes to mind. One image is that "certain people" are going to move into the neighborhood, raising fears about decreasing property values and increasing crime.

Or, another possible image is of dozens of people volunteering to build a home for someone in need.

Those "certain people," Habitat for Humanity officials in the Tri-State area said, need a hand up, not a handout. They are working, but cannot afford a home - especially in this area, where the prices of houses continue to increase.

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Of those 60 Habitat homes, one belongs to Cherry Hiser of Hagerstown.

Spend some time in her home's neat, comfortable living room - with its exotic birds in pristine cages and a feisty little dog named Buffy in her kennel for the safety of visitors' ankles - and any preconceptions about Habitat homeowners quickly are realized as being misconceptions.

Hiser, who is home from work as she recovers from major surgery, moved into her two-bedroom Mitchell Avenue home in December 2003.

One notion needs to be made clear, she said.

"A lot of people think it's a freebie, and it's not. We pay a mortgage just like everybody else," said Hiser, 36.

And, just like everyone else, that mortgage payment includes taxes and insurance. When applying to be a Habitat homeowner, Hiser had to apply for a bank loan, complete with background, credit and reference checks.

Before buying her home, Hiser was working three part-time jobs - as a school crossing guard, a school lunch aide and an evening cook at an assisted-living facility - to care for her and her daughter, Erica Palladino, who now is 13 years old and dreams of turning her love for animals into a career as a veterinarian.

So impressed with her work ethic and determination, a Habitat volunteer helped Hiser obtain a full-time job with benefits at the Teleflex Marine facility in Hagerstown, where Hiser said she loves her job making parts for boats, planes and large machinery.

When she was working three part-time jobs, Hiser lived in an apartment not far from her new home. Her landlord was a good one, but Hiser said the apartment's rent was high, and in the winter, it was difficult to heat.

Her aunt, a house cleaner for one of the couples who helped found the local Habitat affiliate, told Hiser about the program.

Hiser delayed applying for several years.

Hiser had lost her job in 1997 when Honeywell Inc. closed its Hagerstown plant, and she did not think she would be able to buy a Habitat home.

Her aunt gave her some advice.

"She said, the only thing they can do is tell you no," Hiser recalled.

Like all Habitat homeowners, once her application was approved, Hiser had to put in 500 hours of sweat equity. She helped to lay the floor footers, helped lift the walls, painted the entire interior of her home (and wants to repaint it now) and volunteered for Habitat projects - a practice she still continues.

Life on the quiet residential street where neighbors look out for one another has been wonderful, she said.

"It gave me a stability and a life for me and my daughter," Hiser said. "It's really calmed my life down."

A fixed work schedule enables her to eat dinner every night with her daughter and attend her sporting events - Erica is an in-line speedskater and is showing an interest in volleyball.

Now, Hiser said she recommends Habitat "every chance I can."

"When I'm out, if I meet people (who could benefit from Habitat), I let them know what's out there, that Habitat's there for low-income people," she said.

By the numbers

Want to live in Jefferson County, W.Va.?

Habitat for Humanity can't help there. Like so many people seeking to live in West Virginia's easternmost county, the nonprofit agency has been priced out of the market.

Instead, the agency is building homes in Berkeley County, W.Va., mostly in Martinsburg, and is trying to make inroads in more rural Morgan County, said Al Means, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Panhandle.

The agency plans to build five homes this year, which will top its prior record of two houses built in one year.

Construction already has started on the first home, on Arch Street, and a hole has been dug to allow work to begin on the second house, Means said.

Twenty homes have been built in the Panhandle since the agency started in 1993.

Since then, property values have continued to become more and more unreachable for many people who do not commute to Washington.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lists the median family income for a family in the Martinsburg-Hagerstown region as a little more than $57,000, Means said.

Broken down hourly, that equals about $27 for full-time work.

"None of us (earn that)," Means said.

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