Habitat group determined to build

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With the struggling economy and holiday spending, it's no surprise that donations are down to many nonprofit organizations.

The Allegheny Valley chapter of Habitat for Humanity has seen fundraising slow in recent months. And that, in turn, has slowed construction of a home.

But organizers are determined to continue work on their 19th house.

Started 13 years ago, the Allegheny Valley chapter is an active branch in the Pittsburgh region - it has built or remodeled 18 houses and is now building a house in Arnold.

"Our Village of Hope donations at Pittsburgh Mills Mall are slower this year than last year," said Diane Belitskus, executive director. "Last year in the first 14 days of the drive before Thanksgiving, the village raised $2,200. In the same period this year, we've only seen $1,000 in donations."

In past years, the group has raffled several children's playhouses in the mall in Frazer to raise money over the holidays.

This year, Habitat organizers have expanded the items that donors can win with a raffle purchase - Amish furniture, a shed and a gazebo in addition to a child's playhouse.

Revenue from the chapter's construction and furniture resale store, called ReStore, also is slower than anticipated. The chapter opened the store on Industrial Boulevard in New Kensington two years ago, modeled after other chapters in the country, to raise money for its housing projects.

An annual Habitat bike ride in the fall also saw fewer participants than in previous years due to competition from another popular bike ride.

The chapter usually spends $85,000 to build a three-bedroom ranch house. Those who get the new house are required to put in 350 hours of "sweat equity" and to pay the monthly mortgage for the home.

Some of the costs for the house in Arnold have come in higher than expected.

A large, older house at 1364 Fifth Ave. was donated to Habitat by the owners. The chapter expected to pay $5,000 for demolition, but that cost ended up at $8,000. A sewer-line replacement also cost more than expected, and the cost to pour the concrete was expected to be $2,800 but was $3,200.

The chapter had a wall-raising event on the Arnold house in October, and it has a roof. On Dec. 9, the concrete basement floor was poured.

"You need to lock a house down for the winter," Mrs. Belitskus said. "You have to pour the basement floor so the walls don't collapse. And you need to have a roof finished so it's dry enough inside to continue work, such as installing dry wall."

"We got a lot of lumber for the house from Allegheny Lumber," she said, "and bless them, they've said, 'Pay us when you [can].' So we do have lumber to continue work inside."

Dave Pakulski, who owns a home remodeling and construction company in Harrison, is the volunteer construction supervisor for Habitat.

He said Liberty Roofing in Arnold hopes it can donate siding and shingles for the roof in the next couple of months.

So far, Mrs. Belitskus said, the chapter has invested $33,000 in the house.

"The most expensive parts of a house are the excavation and putting in the foundation," Mr. Pakulski said. "They require heavy equipment. Then, the plumbing and heating are the next most expensive. Everything else we can do with volunteers."

He said the chapter likes to build houses of 1,200 square feet that are economical for families to maintain. Because it has good insulation, the house in Arnold should cost a family less than $100 a month in gas bills, he said.

Mr. Pakulski said other local suppliers have helped the chapter, including Hampton Concrete of Valencia, which supplies pre-cast concrete steps to the basement, and Lowe's.

And, of course, the group has regular volunteers.

The chapter uses a volunteer work crew on Saturdays to do most of the construction.

Student groups from Valley High School, the University of Pittsburgh and Indiana University of Pennsylvania and employees from Curtiss-Wright Corp. recently joined regular volunteers to work.

Mr. Pakulski has been working with the chapter for eight years and has been the volunteer construction chief for the past four or five years.

"We show the students how to do everything," he said. "If you show them how to build a house, then they can take care of a home, too. A few Saturdays when the weather was nice we had about 30 volunteers.

The students can help with putting trusses up, putting plywood on for shingles, building partition walls."

The volunteer crew usually works inside all winter on a house. But without heat in the house, the work will depend on how cold it is.

The work crew will take a break over the Christmas and New Year's holiday and then plans to resume work.

The Allegheny Valley chapter did have a corporate partner, Thrivent Builds, for a couple of years, but the chapter could not apply for a grant in 2010 because it did not meet a Dec. 31, 2009, deadline for finishing a house in Tarentum.

"We didn't have a problem. Everything went well except we couldn't get the house done in one year, by the end of the year, as they required," Mrs. Belitskus said. "We finished it in February, and the family has moved in and is doing well."

"We're not professional builders, even though we've been doing this for 13 years," she said. "And sometimes delays happen. People say they will donate things or their labor, but it doesn't always work out."

A family is eagerly waiting for the Arnold house to be completed.

"We have a really good family for the house," Mrs. Belitskus said. "The dad, Bryan Heyl, is a cook at Giant Eagle, and he adopted a son, who also works. They've been working a lot at the house to get their required hours in."

"I'm proud to tell the board that we've never stopped work on a house," Mrs. Belitskus said. "I remember House No. 5. I only had $75 and I had to count the 2-by-4s I was buying," she said, laughing. "We'll do it with faith and prayers. We just need a little bit of help."

The Village of Hope is open until Jan. 15 at Pittsburgh Mills Mall.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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