Edwin and Ada Sanchez

Home Work

Edwin Sanchez had to pull his delivery truck to the side of the road in order to take the call. At first, he couldn’t make out the voice on the other end. After he cut the engine, he could hardly believe what he heard: Habitat for Humanity had accepted his application to receive a new home. “I was happy,” Edwin says, admitting he was maybe even a little bit “emotional,” which was okay because “I was all by myself,” he says with a laugh.

An international organization with affiliates in nearly 1,400 communities in the US, including one in New Haven, Habitat for Humanity builds homes that cost less than traditional houses because most of the labor comes from volunteers. That includes new homeowners themselves, who must put in at least 400 hours of “sweat equity.” And mortgages, which homeowners take over upon completion of the project, come interest-free. “It helps a lot,” Edwin says.

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On a recent Saturday morning, he and his wife Ada, who works at the Mary Wade senior community in New Haven, took a break from demolition and floor construction to talk about how they ended up here at 387 Lenox Street in Fair Haven Heights. It’s a noisy conversation, undercut by whining saws and thwacking hammers. After more than 20 years of renting the same New Haven apartment, Edwin says, he had already put in a traditional mortgage application when Ada heard from a friend at church about Habitat. She figured they should give it a try.

The Sanchezes’ home is “a really special project,” says Allison Mangles, Volunteer and Family Services Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven. Many of Habitat’s homes—about 115 have been built in New Haven since 1986—are new construction. But the Sanchezes will be living in a historic 1830s oyster captain’s home, which for years was an abandoned blight on the neighborhood. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which meant it required “a little bit more attention to detail” in the plan to restore its original Greek Revival exterior, construction manager Antoine Claiborne says.

A historical assessment done by consultant Charlotte R. Hitchcock for Habitat tells the story of the house’s long history, from its construction on a lot subdivided from the “Isaac Brown farmstead” in the 1830s to the urbanization of the neighborhood in the 1870s to its 20th-century conversion into a two-family home. Hitchcock also notes architectural details such as locally quarried red sandstone in the basement and surviving original details like an attic window frame that was discovered when newer siding was removed.

The to-do list for today includes replacing rotted and damaged floor joists so a new subfloor can be installed. Claiborne stands on the partial floor, not far from exposed gaps that peer into the dark basement below, where volunteers are working. He points to evidence of fire damage on charred studs and flooring above us. Claiborne says the house also suffered water damage and rot. “We took everything right down to the studs, and we’re building it up again.”

That ground-up construction offers a chance for Edwin and Ada, as well as volunteers from First Congregational Church in Guilford who are helping out today, to learn what it takes to build a house. Mangles, who began as a volunteer, says she’s tried it all: roofing, siding, insulating, landscaping, caulking, painting. “The sweat equity is really important,” she says. New homeowners “helped build house. There’s not too many things that are more powerful than that.” Along the way, Mangles says, they also learn to care for their new home. And all new homeowners must take a series of online classes on money management and an in-person class on “home ownership and what to expect.”

The Sanchezes’ home isn’t the only Habitat build happening in New Haven. Two new homes on Vernon Street are also under construction, and another project on Redfield Street has just broken ground. Habitat of Greater New Haven relies on “community builds”—organized groups of individuals, businesses, congregations and civic organizations—to raise $50,000 for each construction and provide enough volunteers to do the work. The Sanchezes’ project is sponsored by Raise the Roof, which was founded in Madison; the Vernon Street homes are sponsored by Yale New Haven Hospital; and the Redfield Street home is sponsored by Sleeping Giant Build, drawing support and volunteers from Hamden, North Haven and New Haven.

Edwin and Ada’s home should be finished by the end of this year. Edwin is hopeful the family—including the Sanchezes’ 16-year-old son—will be in the house by Christmas. Then the historic house that has been home to an oysterman, an ice peddler, a farmer, a milk dealer, a factory worker, a carpenter, a chauffeur and others will be inhabited once again.

Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven
37 Union St, New Haven (map)
(203) 785-0794

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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