HELENA — This week, the Helena Area Habitat for Humanity celebrated, holding dedication ceremonies for four new homes for local families. But even as they marked another successful project, leaders said they’re facing growing challenges in meeting the need for affordable housing in the community.
“Habitat for Humanity’s pretty used to doing these types of events – dedicating homes – but we’ve never dedicated a group of homes following a pandemic in which we lost our entire volunteer base due to COVID-19,” said executive director Jacob Kuntz. “It’s been a very unusual year.”
Work began about a year ago on the four new homes, located in the Red Fox Meadows subdivision in the East Valley. As with any Habitat construction, the families moving had to put in work themselves, each Thursday and Saturday. However, with the usual large groups of volunteers unavailable, more of the work fell on Habitat staff, a few regular volunteers and on other partners.
On Tuesday evening, leaders from Habitat and its partner organizations held ribbon-cuttings on each of the new homes and handed the keys over to the families.
Amber Wilke is moving in with her kids, 14-year-old Max and 11-year-old Loralei. She said their current apartment simply didn’t provide enough space.
“It’s amazing; it’s so great,” she said. “I don’t even have words for how much gratitude and happiness and everything that I feel.”
Justin and Holly Lefebvre had been living in a mobile home with their three children – 13-year-old Kaya, 6-year-old ZyEnna and 4-year-old Rebel. They first connected with Habitat through its program that helps repair existing housing, and they say the organization pushed to get them into the home construction program.
“We got really lucky on that part, because now there’s a huge waiting list,” said Holly Lefebvre.
Kuntz said Helena Area Habitat for Humanity currently have about 200 families on their waiting list. In the last several years, they’ve increased from building one new home a year to a goal of 12 this year. This September, they’re planning a “Home Builders’ Blitz,” where they hope to build four more houses in Red Fox Meadows in just ten days.
However, it’s getting tougher for Habitat to build. Kuntz estimated their typical price for a piece of land has more than doubled over the last eight years.
“I used to be able to pick up a building lot for around $30,000 to $40,000,” he said. “That is completely gone; we’re talking $80,000 to $100,000 almost at a minimum.”
This year, the cost of construction materials has also spiked – adding another $25,000 to the cost of building a single Habitat home.
“It basically is a problem on a problem,” he said. “We’re hoping that prices will modulate over time, but land prices aren’t going to go down any time soon.”
With it getting harder to secure land locally, Helena Area Habitat for Humanity is expanding to other parts of the state. They’re currently building four houses in Red Lodge.
Kuntz says, going forward, finding ways to build with more density will be key to addressing the housing issue. He says Habitat is going to have to become more creative in how they build – looking at options like townhouses, condos and multi-family construction.
The goal is for Helena Area Habitat to be building 30 homes a year within a decade. For now, though, Kuntz said they’re proud to be housing these four families.
“There’s always going to be challenges, but we’ve got to celebrate things in the midst of challenges,” he said.
Kuntz said Habitat will begin welcoming back volunteers to its construction sites over the next few months, with large groups returning in time for the Blitz project, starting Sept. 15. If you are interested in volunteering or otherwise supporting Habitat, you can find more information on their website.