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United Way of Lancaster County


Local Habitat for Humanity launches $4 million ‘Open Doors’ campaign

Volunteers strike a pose at Benchmark Construction’s 2023 “Women Build” event for Lancaster-Lebanon Habitat for Humanity. (Source: Provided)

Andrew Szalay

Andrew Szalay told the crowd gathered Thursday at the S. Dale High Leadership Center in Greenfield that they were witnessing a “milestone moment” for Lancaster-Lebanon Habitat for Humanity.

Szalay, Habitat’s president and CEO, was announcing the public phase of “Open Doors,” a $4 million fundraising campaign launched in December 2021 to expand the nonprofit’s capacity to build affordable housing.

The need is urgent, Szalay said: Habitat and the low- and middle-income first-time homebuyers it serves are struggling as never before amid the post-pandemic affordable housing crisis.

Over the past three years, home prices in Pennsylvania have soared 40%, he said, the sharpest increase in state history. Available properties are scarce and are snapped up the moment they are listed on the market.

Guests listen to the presentation. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

“For a low-income renter that wants to buy, the new reality of (high) prices, downpayment and 6% to 8% interest rates makes the dream of homeownership out of the question,” he said. Moreover, “As a builder and lender in our community, we too have been impacted.”

(Source: Lancaster-Lebanon Habitat for Humanity)

Habitat is able to draw on in-kind donations of supplies as well as volunteer labor: 20,297 hours in 2023, up 65% from 2022. Even so, its average costs have grown to $143,000 for renovation of an existing house and $240,000 to build a new one, not including property acquisition or infrastructure improvements. (By comparison, the average cost to build a new house in the U.S. is around $329,000.)

To meet the challenge, Habitat decided toward the end of 2021 to commit to building 30 houses from 2022 through 2026 — a 50% increase in its output. Through Open Doors, it is raising the $4 million it needs to make that happen.

The initiative’s “quiet phase” — a period of reaching out privately to foundations and large potential donors — secured $3.2 million, $200,000 more than hoped. Key contributors included Benchmark Construction, Bank of Bird-in-Hand, CNH Industrial Foundation the Clark Associates Charitable Foundation and the High Foundation.

Habitat hopes to raise the remaining $800,000, or more, by the end of the year.

Marisol Maldonado, left, and Robert Brandt III.

“A stable, safe, affordable home is a game-changer,” said Robert Brandt III, President of Benchmark Construction. He is co-chairing the Open Doors campaign along with Marisol Maldonado, who manages Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s lead poisoning prevention program.

The added capacity enabled by Open Doors will last well beyond 2026, Maldonado said.

Click to enlarge. (Source: Provided)
A rendering of Lancaster-Lebanon Habitat for Humanity’s planned Wheatland Avenue project. Click to enlarge. (Source: Provided)

The organization anticipates that 25 of the units it plans to build will be in Lancaster County. They include nine units at two sites in Columbia and an eight-unit complex at 913 Wheatland Ave. in Lancaster — a first-of-its-kind project for Habitat and the largest project in the Open Doors portfolio.

Kenya McGrier

Kenya McGrier, a certified medical assistant and mother of three, said she had waited for years for the chance to apply when Habitat opened its waiting list in January 2023. She delivered her application by hand to make sure everything was in order, and was elated when she was accepted.

Her house in Lancaster’s SoWe neighborhood is due to be completed in April. The prospect of homeownership and the relationship with Habitat, she said, have “opened doors I never thought could be opened.”

Kenya McGrier celebrates outside the Habitat for Humanity house that she will buy after its renovation. (Source: Provided)
Greta Perez

Habitat homeowner Greta Perez said the homeownership program was the answer to her prayers. She was able to relocate from a neighborhood plagued by gun violence, moving with her daughter into their new home in 2023. That enabled them to complete college degrees — nursing for Perez, fine arts and illustration for her daughter.

Perez wryly recalled her “sweat equity” experience — would-be homeowners must contribute 250 hours to 400 hours. Handed a pickaxe and directed to dig boulders out of a ditch, she learned quickly and painfully the importance of wearing work gloves.

Perez now serves on Habitat’s Family Services Committee. “Just imagine how many more dreams could be met” through Habitat’s expansion, she said.