MORRISTOWN, N.J.

Camille Allen’s home in Morristown was formerly the site of the neighborhood dump, a place to deposit leaves, glass bottles, and the occasional used tire.  But three years ago, Morris Habitat for Humanity acquired the compact piece of property nestled in a corner of a development close to Speedwell Avenue.  Today, the land bears no evidence of its junkyard past.  A three-unit house sits on it enveloped by large trees.  The paved road in front of the house ends on the side in a spacious parking area for residents and visitors.

Allen lives with her two sons in the middle unit.  All three units have a comfortable two level floor plan with three bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen, living room, and utility room downstairs.  A fenced in backyard runs the length of the house.  Her neighbor was helping her put in a brick paver patio, Allen said, pointing to an area in the middle of her portion of the backyard.

Life was not always so good for Allen.  Before she moved into her Habitat home in 2002, the 35-year old Jamaica native who came to the U.S. eighteen years ago, lived in Morris Plains while working as a social worker with the Morris County Division of Human Services.  Her older son, Sean, was in high school and her younger one, Fabian, was in elementary school. 

For Allen, the financial burden of living in one of the most expensive counties in the country was proving to be too much.  “I was paying 60% of my income for rent”, she said.  “It was hard to make ends meet”.

And so when she found out that she had been chosen from among many applicants to become one of the homeowners in a three-family structure to be built in Morristown, Allen was overjoyed.  “It was very emotional”, she said of the time.  ‘We were really excited”.

Her circumstances, she feels, were symptomatic of the affordable housing crisis in Morris County, one that affects not just low-income individuals but those of moderate income as well. 

As an articulate and confident young woman with a college degree, she had “a decent job”, Allen said, but it was still a struggle to come up with the monthly rent payments.

Now, relieved of the stress of making large housing payments, this single mother can focus on the things that are important to her like making sure that her two sons don’t let their grades slip in school.  She admits to being a taskmaster when it comes to schoolwork but it has paid off.  Fabian, now a sixth grader, is on the Honor Roll at Freylinghuysen Middle School while Sean is a junior at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Blair Schleicher-Wilson, Morris Habitat’s Executive Director agreed that there was an acute shortage of affordable housing in Morris County with the result that many people ended up in unacceptable living conditions.  “Families are living in one-bedroom [places] with three, four, or more people.  It gets tight; it’s hard to live like that”, Schleicher-Wilson said.

Through its home ownership program, Morris Habitat for Humanity, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its establishment this year, builds and rehabilitates houses for families in need.  The homes are sold at cost and carry zero interest mortgages.  Land for building on is acquired through municipalities and other entities that donate it or sell it to Morris Habitat at a token price.

In an attempt to maximize its impact, Morris Habitat has also established synergistic relationships with other groups that champion home ownership.

“We’re requiring that all our applicants have homeowner education”, Schleicher-Wilson said.  Thus, they attend seminars offered by the Housing Partnership of Morris County on topics ranging from budgeting and credit establishment to home maintenance and long-term financial planning. 

In addition, Schleicher-Wilson said, they were currently working with the Morris County Housing Authority to rehabilitate a townhouse for a person “coming out of Section 8”, a federally funded rental subsidy program.

During a Habitat “build”, as a home construction project is termed, teams of volunteers help raise a house from the foundation up. Those with considerable building experience supervise others who are less skilled.  Mark Bippes, Morris Habitat’s Construction Manager, oversees the work at all the home sites.

For Morris Habitat, the biggest challenge lies in locating usable land, a commodity that is not cheap in Morris County.  However, Bippes said, even if such land was available, there could be other roadblocks along the way.

Environmental and zoning issues have to be dealt with before work can begin on a site and delays during construction are not uncommon either, often created when inspectors and sub-contractors don’t show up as promised.

Still, Bippes said, it was heartening to see homeowners like Allen and her two neighbors show such initiative in maintaining and updating their homes.  “I’m proud of them”, he said.

Allen said that she feels that her life experiences have helped shape her as an individual and made her mature beyond her 35 years. “A lot of 15-year olds don’t have children”, she said.  “I did”.

Now, having made the most of what might normally be viewed as a setback, Allen has her sights set on more than one goal.  She currently holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology but intends to return to school for a master’s and eventually a doctoral degree in Social Work.

In addition to her full-time job, she works part-time as a referee for the lacrosse and soccer games of local clubs.  She also serves as the president of the area’s Interfaith Council for the Homeless and often bakes cakes for various events, indulging a long-time love of baking.

How does she fit all this into a 24-hour day?  “I don’t need much sleep”, Allen said with a smile but she attributed part of this voluntary hyperactivity to being a Habitat homeowner.  “When your financial situation changes, your entire life changes”, she said.  “If your housing is unstable, you can’t focus on your goals”.