Over a year ago, when the Garden City Habitat for Humanity board of directors decided after months of consideration to dissolve the local nonprofit, there was one more family waiting in line for a new home.

Finished in June, the house would become the last the organization, as it exists now, would build.

By the end of the year, after months of checking in with the national office, selling a storage building and tools and otherwise liquidating assets, Garden City’s Habitat for Humanity will close permanently after 19 years and nine completed homes for low-income families in town. With an unprecedented move, however, the organization is hoping to keep a flicker of its mission alive.

The Habitat shutdown is not a result of financial issues, said Beverly Miller, the Garden City organization’s board chair director, but of significant volunteer dips and burnout.

The local Habitat traditionally has gradually built one home at a time on Saturdays, and over the years, people “became busier and busier,” Miller said. While building the last couple of houses, many weekends brought only board members and experts to the workspace.

Board members, all volunteers and some serving all 19 years, are getting older, and want to travel or take advantage of their lives away from the organization, Miller said.

Miller said the board tried to recruit other board members, but with no success. They asked if other nonprofit agencies wanted to take over the workload, but none could sustain it. She said the board didn’t know what else to do.

“It was just finding people to help build the homes, to continue to help build the homes,” she said. “And we’re not blaming anybody. We don’t mean to do that. We just came to the point where we felt like that was what we needed to do.”

In the future, if someone wants to start a local Habitat in Garden City again, they’re certainly welcome to, Miller said. But in the meantime, the exiting organization has spent months ensuring their nine homeowner families will be taken care of, the current funds will go to a good cause and a piece of the organization will live, in some way, for decades.

Moving forward, the Barton County Area Habitat for Humanity will manage the Garden City location’s seven remaining mortgages and organize an annual social and educational dinner for the new homeowners. Over the past week, the Garden City Habitat has also been distributing its liquidated assets to 14 local nonprofits that Miller did not want to name. The board chose them, she said, out of a belief that they will benefit people in similar situations as the Habitat families.

The local Habitat organization's last effort, however, could potentially impact Garden City in small ways for years to come. The organization has worked with the Western Kansas Community Foundation since the summer to establish an endowment fund created with $15,000 given by local donors, said Conny Bogaard, WKCF executive director. For the next 30 years, Barton County's Habitat organization will submit 25 percent of the remaining mortgage payments to the fund, ultimately adding over $103,000, plus standard investments from the WKCF, Bogaard said. Local donors could also contribute to the fund, she said.

Starting late next year, the WKCF will make 3 to 5 percent of the fund available to local nonprofits through an affordable housing grant meant to carry on Habitat’s mission on a smaller scale, Bogaard said. The grant likely will be $800 to $900 in the first year and grow to $5,000 to $6,000 after 30 years, she said.

It’s not enough to build a house, Miller said, but could tend to more immediate needs or contribute to local projects.

“We felt an obligation to the people that have supported us financially to use that money in a similar way,” she said.

The grant will be the WKCF’s first foray into affordable housing, and Bogaard said she looked forward to kicking off conversations with Garden City nonprofits and local government regarding the grant. Miller said a representative at the national Habitat for Humanity office had been impressed with the new concept, calling it a thoughtful way to distribute assets and create a sustainable fund.

“That is a wonderful solution because the money they collected in the past years was coming from local donors, from Garden City mostly. And with this arrangement, a large portion of that money comes back to this community and will still be used for continuing purposes in affordable housing …” Bogaard said. “Now that it’s endowed, this will stay in place forever. That’s the beauty of an endowment fund. So this money will always be available for Garden City from now on.”

Like many communities, Garden City has long struggled to meet housing needs for low to very low income residents, and there is definitely a need for more affordable housing in the area, said Kaleb Kentner, the city's Neighborhood and Development Services director.

Habitat filled a unique service niche in the community, and losing it is a big loss for Garden City, Kentner said. He said the new grant won’t be able to support the work Habitat did, but every little bit helps.

Habitat for Humanity impacted people, but less so larger local housing initiatives, and partnering with companies, the state and other assistance programs will help Garden City meet low-income housing needs, said Lona DuVall, president and CEO of the Finney County Economic Development Corp.

Currently, Kansas City housing nonprofit Builders Development Corp. is constructing 10 duplexes and 20 single family homes for the Northborough development north of Valley View Cemetery, and the FCEDC plans to work with the group on future projects, as well, DuVall said. When the WKCF affordable housing grant becomes available, she said, she would encourage the group to apply.

On the service side, JaneneRadke, executive director of Family Crisis Services and soon-to-be vice president of the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, said affordable housing was a need she saw daily. When clients could not secure a place to stay, they stayed in the safe house longer, and it made it more difficult for them to find a steady income or meet other needs, she said. Any additional funding would help the nonprofit find their clients and their children a safe place to stay on a tight budget.

Radke said she was sad to see Habitat go, but thought the final effort was a generous one.

Started by a group of people that met through the Presbyterian Church of Garden City in 1999, the local Habitat for Humanity has benefitted from hundreds of local volunteers, Miller said. They were individuals, families and groups from churches, out-of-town youth groups, school sports teams and businesses looking for outlets for employee team building, among others, she said. She said the community had offered great support through their work hours and donations for years, and the board is thankful.

Habitat left behind not just nine houses and dozens of changed lives, but more local money from property taxes and a beautified community, Miller said. She said when Habitat rebuilt homes out of once abandoned or condemned properties, neighbors took newfound pride in their block and fixed up their homes, as well. The projects enhanced neighborhoods, she said.

As logistics are settled in the organization’s final weeks, board members will step away from a large part of their lives, Miller said. She and other board members won’t be spending their weekends cutting wood or hanging sheetrock anymore, or at least not as often.

What they hope will last, she said, are the friendships they’ve developed with the Habitat families, self-reliant and proud people that instantly grabbed onto their new opportunities.

“The relationship that we build with our families is really, really unique. It truly is. We work alongside them, we get to know their kids, all of that,” Miller said. “There is a need that Habitat filled in this town, and that will be lacking.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.