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We have been active in the community for 30 years, but our mission is still ongoing

Flatirons Habitat has come a long way since we built our first home nearly 30 years ago. However, one thing remains the same. The work we do is the result of our volunteers, our partner families and those in the community who consistently show their support.

We started our affiliate because of one simple fact that has remained the same over the three decades we've been in service.

For many, owning a home is crucial for building wealth. A chance at home ownership does not just offer stability and a pathway to build equity, but for some it can also help break the cycle of poverty.

However, many people have trouble entering the housing market. A problem that does not just impact those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Our community is an expensive one to live in, especially those who reside in Boulder.

That was the case when we first started years ago. Those issues centered around housing affordability have only gotten worse. The average price of home has continued to climb and our service area currently has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.

We have adapted over the years. Our operation has grown and the number of projects we take on continues to expand. But, our mission and purpose behind our founding continues to stay the same.

We at Flatirons Habitat want to offer our neighbors a hand up, not a hand out. That means being committed with working with individuals and families to give them the tools they need to access the housing market as well as live in affordable housing.

What has made us unique and continues to be our defining trait is our focus on homeownership. That is why we decided to start our affiliate in the area. Our journey started with a team of volunteers that were focused on one house at a time. We have since progressed to larger projects involving more homes, more families as well as paid positions and a network of dedicated volunteers.

Filling a void

As our first executive director, Kurt Firnhaber, recalled, there were efforts in our area 30 years ago focused on affordable rental properties. But none were really tackling the issue of affordable homeownership.

Habitat affiliates had sprouted in places such as Longmont and the Metro Denver area. But, those organizations were not focused on our communities. Firnhaber and our early board members as well as our volunteers wanted to change that.

Firnhaber had seen the importance of housing and the impacts it can have on a community's overall health first hand. He worked as a high school teacher in Zimbabwe in the early 90s. That experience opened his eyes to the housing realities in the area he lived. While there, he also participated in a project to bring clean water to an aging hospital that did not have running water.

Afterwards, Firnhaber, who worked as a general contractor in the Boulder area, participated in a trip to Nicaragua to build homes as part of Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program.

"Housing is real key for any society to function. It is a basic level thing that needs to be established," Firnhaber said. His trips to Zimbabwe and Nicaragua inspired him to focus on the housing issues of the Boulder area when he returned home.

Once back in the Boulder area, Firnhaber had acquired a list of locals that had donated to Habitat for Humanity. He wanted to see if they would be interested in an affiliate of their own. He said that he wanted to get those people involved and focus their efforts on local affordable housing concerns.

The beginning years of our affiliate relied mostly on grass-root efforts. That included spreading information, recruiting volunteers and building up a base of donors.

Early efforts to raise money for the affiliate included a competition around building birdhouses. Those creations then would be displayed in public areas. The goal was to not just raise money but also raise awareness for the newly established affiliate.

Firnhaber used his experience as a contractor to help design and build some of the first homes associated with Flatirons Habitat. His time as our first executive director eventually led to his current position as the Director of Housing and Human Services for the City of Boulder.

Friends and other community members pitched in to offer their expertise. That included forming committees, establishing a board as well as sharing legal advise on how to get the affiliate up and running.

Kathleen O’Leary used her experience as a lawyer to help put together the founding documents for Flatirons Habitat as well as get affiliated with Habitat International and secure non-profit status.

O'Leary's work with us inspired her to get more involved in advocating for affordable housing. It was her first time she become involved with Habitat. The experience opened her eyes to how the organization operates and the impact it has on communities.

She served on our board and is now the Executive Director of the Blue Spruce Habitat for Humanity.

O'Leary said that the organization's focus on service to the community is what prompted her to get involved as well as resonating with its mission to give local residents a chance at affordable homeownership.

Growing up, the importance of housing and the impacts of poverty had become clear to her. A family friend who was a nun had demonstrated the differences between volunteer poverty practiced by clergy and the harsh realities of non-voluntary poverty a lot of people face.

The impact of Habitat's mission to assure access to affordable home ownership became evident as the affiliate began to build its first houses.

“You see the families out there working on their houses. They are part of this process. It is not us just handing them something. It is not us just being a do-gooder. It’s us partnering with the family,” O'Leary said.

How a home can make a difference

The first house was built in Lafayette a year or so after the Flatirons Habitat affiliate started. An empty lot had been purchased in an existing neighborhood. The home was for a family with two young children. They were among a number of people that had applied for a habitat home.

The labor was done entirely by volunteers. Each brought their own expertise as well as an eagerness to learn as they went along. Construction took place initially one day a week. However, that later changed to two days a week.

Money was raised as they went along with the construction. More joined the effort as volunteers. When the home was completed, one thing was clear. That home gave a family a chance at homeownership. As it was then and still is today, our homes represent for many a chance at stability and equity.

“With Habitat, you are working with someone to get them into a stable house and something that they own. That makes such a huge difference for them. But it also makes a huge difference for their families. If they are coming from generational poverty, that helps break that cycle of poverty,” said O'Leary.

It also gives an opportunity for those in the community to learn more about the importance of affordable housing as well as the reality of our current housing crisis.

“You can see (the house) go up in front of your eyes and you understand that this is going to be someone’s home. It is amazing. You get to see the work that is being done," O'Leary added.

After the house was finished, the original selection process had yielded a number of great candidates. That led to more homes being built in different parts of our service area. Eventually we established a paid staff and the type of projects we take on has continued to evolve ever since.


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