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Habitat for Humanity seeks veterans for new homes

The half-built, two-story duplex is tucked on a small lane in Cinnaminson, close to a woods adjacent to the Delaware River.

The half-built, two-story duplex is tucked on a small lane in Cinnaminson, close to a woods adjacent to the Delaware River.

It has walls, and its roof was installed last week.

But the house still needs siding and windows, and more critically, two veterans willing to move in with their families and to assume an interest-free mortgage that is less than the average rental payment.

Habitat for Humanity of Burlington County recently hung an American flag from a utility pole on the front lawn, as if to drive the point home.

"We have 37,000 veterans living in Burlington County and it's surprising to me we can't find anyone to apply for the duplex," Lori Leonard, executive director of the nonprofit group, said in an interview last week. She said the affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International began work on the Inman Street project in June using volunteers. But she said the group would prefer to have the two households already on board, sharing the work.

Habitat is designed to help low- and moderate-income individuals and families obtain affordable mortgages after they put in up to 400 hours of "sweat equity" into building their home.

Leonard said construction on the project has been slowed while the nonprofit reaches out to veterans associations to see if they know a family that might be interested. So far, none have applied. She said she even contacted officials at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to see if they could come up with names.

"We like to make sure a family gets the opportunity to work on their home. . . . It instills the pride of home ownership," Leonard said.

Steve Wolfe, Habitat's construction manager, said he is optimistic. "The volunteers have worked out in the blazing sun and when there was inclement weather to get this house built," he said last week while visiting the site. "Everyone put in a lot of effort because it's for our country's veterans."

This project is Burlington's first involvement with the Veterans Build program. Home Depot, Davis Enterprises, and other corporations have donated funds and workers to the project. Cinnaminson Township donated the lot.

David Gilkeson, director of Veterans Build for the international organization, said the program is about two years old and currently is serving veterans in 80 communities across the country. Among them is the Philadelphia area, he said. He said the program is "in its infancy" and a key to getting veterans to participate is through education and awareness initiatives.

Leonard said that she hopes two veteran families will be found before next spring, when the project is targeted for completion. Officials with other affiliates have also reported having difficulties getting veterans interested in the program, she said.

Part of the challenge is convincing veterans this is "not a handout" but a house they earn through their own labor and because of their service to the nation, Leonard said.

The units have two bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms. An eligible veteran's family would pay about $850 a month on a 25-year mortgage, compared with the $1,200 average monthly rental payment in the county, Leonard said. Habitat would sell the units to the families at cost, estimated at $130,000 each, and interest would not be assessed, she said.

Anthony Isabella, executive directive of the Gloucester County affiliate, said his group launched the Veterans Build program in March and also experienced problems finding an interested "partner family." Normally about 30 families apply for a Habitat home, but only one veteran's family submitted an application for the designated veteran's house in Clayton, he said.

"It took us about six months to find a qualified family," Isabella said. "I know the need for veterans' housing is out there, but basically the word had not yet gotten out," he said.

Months later, that family dropped out for personal reasons, he said, and only recently did another interested veteran come forward.

Isabella said that, due to the delay, the Clayton house was given to a nonveteran's family who had helped build it. The new veteran's family will build a house in the spring in Deptford with Habitat's help.

Another reason for the problem, Isabella said, may be the qualifications the veterans must meet. He said they must be employed and must earn a salary based on a median income level for the area. "There are some veterans who don't meet our criteria," he said.

In Burlington County, a family of four would be eligible if it earns between $24,300 and $48,700 annually. Leonard said the program also calls for the family to pay no more than 28 percent of its income for the mortgage.

Leonard said the units would be sold only to veterans who are either active in the military or who have been honorably discharged.

Each unit is about 1,400 square feet, Leonard said. The duplex is located on a street with a few houses and a light industrial complex, she said.

At the end of the block is a stream and a woods. Next to the duplex is Jen VanBarriger, who has lived there eight years. She said it's a "quiet neighborhood" and that the woods are a nice place to take hikes and take dogs for a walk. "I'm happy this is going to a good cause," she said of the duplex. "I have vets in my family, and this is near and dear to my heart."