Tim Dreher spends many of his lunch hours walking three blocks from his McKeesport job site to Jefferson Street, where well-maintained houses are fronted by meticulously groomed yards. He stops at the one vacant house on the block and dreams about the approaching mid-September day when he and his family will move into the two-story red brick home.
For the first time in their lives, Mr. Dreher, 53, and his wife, Shawnda, 45, will be homeowners.
While Mr. Dreher has worked in housekeeping at the main campus of Auberle, a human services agency that helps at-risk children and families, the family has lived in a series of rental properties in McKeesport, a city they love.
Mr. Dreher put his own sweat and labor into a previous house that Mrs. Dreher said had been "nasty" but was in the Christy Park neighborhood, which they liked. But when their landlady saw the improvements they had made, she did not offer to pay them back with a rent reduction. Instead, she asked them to leave and moved into the house herself, Mrs. Dreher said.
The family now rents a house in a neighborhood where gunshots are frequently heard. They do not believe it is a safe place to raise their daughter, Tamia,16.
In August, Mr. Dreher saw a flier at Auberle that is changing his life. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh was looking to help more families own decent, safe, affordable housing in good neighborhoods.
"It was such a blessing," he said of finding that flier.
To get a Habitat for Humanity home, recipients have to provide both cash and labor.
There seems to be a widespread misconception that the program gives away free houses, said Maggie I. Withrow, executive director of Habitat of Greater Pittsburgh.
The reality is that all Habitat families make monthly mortgage payments -- $300 to $600 -- for 30 years. Loans from Habitat are interest-free and payments go into the fund to buy and rehabilitate other houses or to build new ones for other families.
In addition, all Habitat families put in 350 hours of what the agency calls "sweat equity," doing hands-on work to build or rehabilitate the house that will one day be their own.
Completing the Habitat for Humanity process generally takes about six to 12 months.
"There is so much you have to go through," Mrs. Dreher said of the paperwork needed to meet Habitat requirements, including documents to show a stable source of income and a satisfactory credit history plus recommendations from employers and credit references.
The typical Habitat program participants earn percent 30 percent to 50 percent of Allegheny County's 2013 median income of $65,100, according to the program's website. The maximum qualifying income is 60 percent of the median. Under those requirements, a family of three could earn an annual income of $17,600 to$35,200, while a family of six could earn between $22,700 and $45,500.
Residents also may qualify if their current home is unsafe, unhealthy, overpriced or overcrowded.
On a recent day, Tim and Shawnda Dreher and their daughter, Tamia, were at the Jefferson Street house, working side by side with volunteers under the supervision of Lee Baumann, a Habitat construction supervisor.
The house, built in 1953, was in good shape, Mr. Baumann said. Chase Bank acquired it through a foreclosure and donated it to Habitat. Electrical wiring has been brought up to code, windows replaced, drywall installed and old tile ripped up from the kitchen floor. Appliances and cabinets will be replaced in the kitchen. New fixtures will be installed in the bathrooms.
"When they ripped up the old carpet, they found original hardwood floors that will be refinished," Mrs. Dreher said as she showed off her soon-to-be home while Tamia pulled carpet staples from the floors.
Upstairs, Mrs. Dreher pointed out the master bedroom, her daughter's room and a spare room.
She has big plans for the spare room.
"I've been wanting to get a foster child, but we currently only have two bedrooms, and I wanted a more stable situation before bringing another child into the family," Mrs. Dreher said.
Potential Habitat homeowners are told that media coverage is critical to securing funding and that families must be willing to embrace and participate with all forms of media.
The Drehers said they have no problem with that requirement, but Mrs. Dreher admitted that she never expected to see herself on television with Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
The Pirates partner with Habitat locally, and a public service announcement featuring Mr. McCutchen and including Mrs. Dreher airs repeatedly on Root Sports. It can be seen at www.pittsburghhabitat.org.
Mr. McCutchen has been to the house several times and had done a lot of work, Mr. Dreher said, including installing drywall and pulling up kitchen floor tiles.
Mr. Dreher joined his wife for part of the recent tour of the house but then excused himself to get back to work in the basement, where he and 11 teenagers from a Virginia church group were installing drywall.
Lilies and multicolored annuals have been planted by Mrs. Dreher, who on this day frowned because the grass in the yard was slightly taller than in the neighboring yards.
"We had planned to cut the grass today, but it's raining," she said. "We'll come back later this week to cut it."
Since 1986, Greater Pittsburgh Habitat has placed families in 80 homes. In the next three years, it will repair as many as 170 houses, thanks to a new agency mission that helps current homeowners with interior and exterior repairs.
Struggling homeowners may not have the money or the ability to get loans for major repairs, Ms. Withrow noted. A leaking roof, for instance, "can cause damage and in five years or so, they might be coming to us because they need a new home," she said.
Last month, Habitat went to the aid of Margaret Rumley, 88, who lives alone in her home in Verona, which she bought 25 years ago with her husband, Charles. He was formerly a missionary in the Philippines and died six years ago.
A roof leak was seeping through the ceiling of her bedroom, and she tried to obtain a low-interest loan to repair it.
"One agency said I made too much money. I collect Social Security," Mrs. Rumley said. She learned about Habitat at a senior center.
Habitat gave her an $840 interest-free loan and repaired the roof, fixed her crumbling concrete porch, repaired and painted window trim, and replaced rotten soffit and fascia.
Mrs. Rumley does not have to pay for the labor performed by volunteers from Wesco in Station Square, the Constellation company and three professional golfers who worked at her house on June 25, two days before the start of the Constellation Senior Players Championship in Fox Chapel.
"I wasn't expecting all this," she said, as local television and newspaper reporters were joined by a camera crew from The Golf Channel.
"You can tell people you had a Masters champion working on your yard," New Zealand native Mark Williams, director of communications on the PGA Tour staff, told Mrs. Rumley. "They probably won't believe you."
She smiled and thanked him, but in response to a reporter's question, Mrs. Rumley admitted she doesn't follow golf.
Pro golfer Peter Senior of Queensland, Australia, has won more than 20 tournaments around the world.
Referring to the other golfers working with him, he said, "Well, we have a Scotsman, an Australian and a Pennsylvanian. It's amazing how much work you can do when you have 15 or 20 volunteers."
Golf pro Alexander "Sandy" Lyle of Scotland, who was digging trenches where impatiens would be planted and spreading mulch on a 90-degree humid day and noted, "It's never this hot in Scotland."
He said he lives on 700 acres "at the gateway to the highlands" north of Glasgow, "so I'm always outside doing manual labor."
Mr. Lyle did not mention that he won at the U.S. Masters in 1988.
Philadelphia native Joe Daley, who won the Seniors Players Championship in 2012, said "it's my pleasure" to help. "I don't have grass in my yard [in Arizona] and there is a part of me that misses the smell of fresh grass."
All three golfers worked on 10-foot-tall hedges, cutting the woody stalks down to about 4 feet. They also pulled weeds from the beds where hostas and orange day lilies grow.
"It takes me about a month to weed the entire yard, and then it's time to start over. With the hedges cut, the day lilies will do better and I'm really happy with the work they're doing," Mrs. Rumley said.
"The roof alone could have cost $2,000. It's so nice to be able to stay in my home," she said. Because her husband was a World War II Air Force veteran, she qualified for Habitat's Veterans Build program. She also benefited from Habitat's A Brush With Kindness program, which emphasizes revitalizing the appearance of neighborhoods.
A Habitat home dedication is always a joyous occasion, and such was the case for the May 25 dedication on Orleans Street in the Observatory Hill section of Pittsburgh. The happy new homeowner was Jacqueline Jackson, along with her sons Tyree, 15, and Rondell, 18.
An opening prayer was said and a Bible was presented to Ms. Jackson as Habitat describes itself as "an ecumenical Christian organization." She signed a symbolic mortgage agreement, and Habitat family services coordinator Daniel Webb cut a ribbon on the front porch and presented the house keys to Ms. Jackson.
"When I met Jackie in March 2012, she was living in an overcrowded and unsafe rental" in Garfield, Mr. Webb said. "It's been a long and a hard road. You got through it."
Ms. Jackson works full time as a school bus driver and did much of her "sweat equity work" during lunch breaks and on Saturdays with her sons.
She thanked the dozens of friends, relatives and volunteers who came to the dedication. "I thank my children for everything I put them through, and I thank the lady who sold the house to Habitat at an affordable price."
Like all Habitat home buyers, Ms. Jackson has taken a minimum of 50 hours of homeownership training to learn budgeting, home repair and maintenance.
Jane Verbanets, who lived in the house for 60 years and raised her children there, came to the dedication and was looking forward to taking the house tour to see what Habitat had accomplished.
Built in 1900, the Jackson house is half of a two-story duplex, with beige brick on the first floor and yellow siding on the second. The house has "good bones and was in good shape," with modernizing touches added by Habitat, including new windows and insulation, Mr. Webb said.
Solid wood doors and trim, as old as the house, were retained and refinished. Some of the rooms have new beige carpet while many have refinished, original hardwood floors. The bathroom and kitchen have new appliances and furnishings from the Habitat ReStore in Edgewood Town Center, which sells donated materials for building and renovating houses.
Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller. It is a nonprofit, ecumenical, Christian ministry with more than 1,500 local affiliates in the United States and more than 80 organizations around the world. Donations sent to the international headquarters in Atlanta do not automatically come back to the Pittsburgh region. If a donor requests the donation to benefit Greater Pittsburgh projects, the international will deduct an 11 percent processing fee.
To have donations used in Allegheny County, send them to www.pittsburghhabitat.org/donate or Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh, 212 Yost Blvd., Suite A, Pittsburgh 15221.
Last year, 2,800 registered volunteers worked 15,033 hours on Habitat houses in the Pittsburgh area. Skill levels range from those, including teenagers, with no particular skills to construction workers and skilled union workers who donate their services.
Volunteers can start with simple jobs such as cutting and pulling weeds, bagging trash and construction debris, and sweeping. Habitat volunteers are trained "on the job" to work their way up a higher skill level, including painting and installing drywall.
While many volunteers come in groups from companies and churches, "solo" volunteers are welcome.
To volunteer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-351-0512.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-722-0087. First Published July 18, 2013 4:00 AM