It’s amazing how much weeding, weed-whacking and hedge-trimming 11 people can do in three hours.
A prime example is the exterior of an Olympia Avenue Victorian-style home owned by Homes First, a Lacey-based nonprofit that’s been providing affordable rental housing in Thurston County since 1990.
Two Homes First properties were among the 42 projects that benefitted from labor offered Friday by 765 volunteers in the 2013 United Way Day of Caring event throughout Thurston County.
Two 10-member crews consisting mostly of Puget Sound Energy employees descended on the homes in Olympia and Lacey about 9 a.m. and had the yards and flower beds looking good by early afternoon.
I joined the Olympia Avenue party for about 90 minutes, and pulled my fair share of blackberries and ivy, two invasive plants that can take over someone’s landscape, not to mention their home, in no time.
We started work in a steady downpour, which nixed a plan to do some house-painting, too. Even without a fresh coat of paint, the house has a lot more curb appeal than it did before the work party. Ivy and blackberry vines no longer cling to the sides of the house and downspouts. A sidewalk rendered nearly impassable by a massive, overgrown, 10-foot-tall laurel hedge is pedestrian-friendly once again.
My favorite lasting image is of PSE crew organizer Farra Vargas, her face and rain suit specked with bits of weed and dirt from tackling an unruly flower bed with a weed-eater. Her smile said it all — this is a community filled with businesses, public employees and nonprofits that are willing to lend a helping hand on behalf of low-income families and high-risk populations.
I left the work site early — about 10:30 a.m. — to change into dry clothes for an interview with Trudy Soucoup, executive director of Homes First. I picked one of their projects for the express purpose of learning more about an affordable housing advocacy group that is not well known in the community.
I got an earful from this ebullient leader of a small — four full-time employees — can-do organization that’s trying to make a dent in this grim statistic: There are 15,000 residents of Thurston County in need of affordable housing. They are either homeless or they are cost-burdened, a fancy term for someone who goes hungry or puts off medical care for themselves or their children because their housing costs eat up too much of their income.
Homes First owns 25 rental properties with 75 leases serving 175 tenants in Thurston County. Some of their tenants are developmentally disabled. Others are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Some are just having a hard time making ends meet.
“Our housing is for people who can’t afford better,” Soucoup said. “We are mission-driven. We don’t want people living on the street.”
Homes First formed in April 1990 in response to a steady conversion of affordable rentals into market rate units. That’s the year the city of Olympia sold the fledgling nonprofit two Victorian-style homes for $1 each to make room for the new Olympia Fire Department headquarters on Fourth Avenue. The nonprofit purchased two vacant lots on Olympia Avenue and Bethel Street, moved the homes, renovated them and turned them into rental properties.
The mortgage for the one on Olympia Avenue was paid off in 2011, representing the first mortgage retired by Homes First. If you haven’t guessed by now, it’s the house that received some Day of Caring care on Friday.
Homes First relies on federal, state and local grant funding to build its property portfolio. About 90 percent of the nonprofit’s overhead costs, including paying down the mortgages, are derived from the rental income.
The group partners with social service providers to assist the tenants, comfortable in the role of a benevolent yet watchful landlord and property manager. Some of the groups Homes First works with include the Housing Authority of Thurston County, Oxford House International, which is a group-living approach to recovery from addictions, and LGH Residential Services, which contracts with the state to provide services to individuals who are developmentally disabled, medically fragile or mentally ill.
Besides her obvious exuberance for the job, Soucoup allows herself to dream of the day when Homes First has the resources to upgrade some of their properties with new, energy efficient cottages and apartments.
Meanwhile, she offered a shout-out to all the volunteers who pitched in Friday to beat back the ivy and the blackberries at two of the houses, including one that gave Homes First its start nearly 25 years ago.John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org