Coming home: Habitat for Humanity helps families build better lives

Published on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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It’s been seven years since Julio Ortiz packed up his belongings and made the journey from Guatemala to Whatcom County to help build a better life for his family. 

A soft-spoken man with a kind face and a hopeful demeanor, the 38-year-old is no stranger to working hard. 

Although he was trained as a teacher in Guatemala, he now spends his days working as a farmhand and driving tractors at Clark’s Berry Farm in Lynden where he helps plant and harvest berries through the summer months. 

It’s hard work and not necessarily what he’s passionate about, but he puts in the hours faithfully so that he can help provide a good life for his wife and four children. 

The move was good for his family, Julio said, and his children are doing well in school, but even with the significant increase in wages the change in locale and vocation brought (he was only earning $10 a day as a teacher in Guatemala), it’s not skilled work, and the cost of living here in Whatcom County has kept the family of six teetering on the edge of poverty in spite of the long days and weeks Julio spends at the farm. 

“It’s hard,” Julio said. “We live check by check. Rent is $1,000 a month and we have to live with another family just to make a payment, and it’s only a two-bedroom house. It’s hard to live with them, and it’s hard for the kids to study.”

Determined to find a way to make life better for his children, Julio turned to Habitat for Humanity for help, and found he was not alone.

John Moon, the executive director for Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County said the situation the Ortizes have found themselves in is not unusual for this area. “These are real people who work hard just to make ends meet, and most of their income goes to rent,” Moon said, noting that adequate, affordable pricing can be difficult to come by anywhere in the county. 

For example, to rent a two-bedroom home in Bellingham, on average, a person needs to be earning a wage of $17.80 per hour, he said. “Most jobs average $11 an hour,” he said. “It doesn’t add up, so people end up sharing homes to make it work. I don’t think most people understand the level of substandard housing that exists in Whatcom County,” he added.

Habitat defines substandard housing as a residence that has dangerous conditions present, such as faulty furnaces, faulty wiring, rotting features, or that is overcrowded. 

“If more than one family is sharing a home or more than two children are forced to share a bedroom, or have no bedroom, or a brother and sister have to share a bedroom, then it’s considered substandard,” Moon said.

Since 1942, Habitat for Humanity affiliates around the world have built more than half a million affordable homes for low-
income families, using only volunteer labor and as many donated materials as possible to make the end result affordable. 

The homes built by Habitat are designed on principles of green and sustainable building. “It’s simple, decent housing for families,” said Steve Thomas, host of This Old House and a Habitat ambassador. “Every nail in these houses is hand driven. They’re well designed and they work very well for the people who own them. There’s a lot of functionality in that small footprint, and the better you build it, the longer they last.”

The Whatcom County affiliate of the organization has built 33 houses and housed more than 145 Whatcom County residents since 1987, and in recent years, they’ve shifted their production to be as green as possible. “They’re creating passive houses that are super insulated and really energy efficient with low air infiltration,” Thomas said. “It’s just as important to keep air out as it is to insulate a house. They are nice houses. I would live in a Habitat house in a heartbeat. You can heat the entire thing with the energy equivalent of what it takes to power a hairdryer.”

Moon said the organization works to place families like the Ortizes, who have reasonably good credit and steady jobs, into the volunteer-built homes to help give them a hand up to better economic stability. 

“It’s not a handout,” he said. “They are given a mortgage and pay for their own homes. And when we look at their credit, we don’t look at their medical bills, but we do look to see if they are paying their phone bills and such, because if they aren’t keeping up on those, it’s unlikely they will be able to commit to the mortgage payment.”

But it’s more than just a mortgage payment. Habitat families are also required to invest 500 hours of “sweat equity” into the project, which means they 

volunteer hours at the Habitat Store or spend time working on the housing site.

“A lot of the application process depends on the family’s willingness to participate,” Moon said. “Sometimes it fails, but most
 of the time, people are very proud that it’s their house and they helped to build it.”

Though it costs him time at his day job, Julio said he happily makes the sacrifice to put in his hours at the Habitat Store earning his new home. “It’s not just for us,” he said. “Our kids are so excited to have their own rooms and we’re also helping other families by doing this work. And, when our house gets done, we’re still going to help out at the store.” 

As the Ortizes pay their mortgage down for their Habitat home, that money will be reinvested into future Habitat homes for others. 

The Birch Bay home that Julio and Juana’s family will eventually move into will be constructed this fall as part of a “Women Build,” where teams that consist mostly of women will work together to build the house nail by nail.

“Building has traditionally been a man’s occupation, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Thomas. “It’s not particularly complicated or difficult work. We aren’t excluding men, we’re just including women. It’s about empowering women to build houses.”

The date for the groundbreaking hasn’t been set yet, so there’s still time to sign up and learn about how you can help. And, if you don’t want to swing a hammer, you can simply buy a cup of coffee to contribute to the cause. On October 7, World Habitat Day, the simple act of purchasing a cup of coffee at local shops will help fund the project and get other projects off the ground. 

To find out more, visit or check out our list of participating coffee shops below.

Get your coffee at one of these Whatcom County locations on Monday, October 7 and help Habitat for Humanity build homes for local families in need:

Big Al’s Diner, 234 D Street, Blaine
Blanchard Mountain Coffee Co., 1456 Lake Samish Road, Bellingham
Border Brew Espresso, 678 14th Street, Blaine
Crazy Bob’s Pizza, 4240 Meridian Street, Bellingham
Koi Cafe, 1203 N. State Street, Bellingham
Lettered Streets Coffeehouse, 1001 Dupont Street, Bellingham
Little Red Caboose Cafe, 795 Peace Portal Drive, Blaine
Peace Arch City Cafe, 321 H Street, Blaine
The Rustic Coffee & Wine Bar, 1319 11th Street, Bellingham
Shorty’s Coffee Shop, 5719 Barrett Road, Ferndale
The Woods Coffee, All locations
Zoom Zoom Espresso, 845 Lincoln Street, Bellingham

No time for a coffee break? 
You can still help. Give $3 online at, and make a change in Whatcom County!