How JEWISHcolorado can help families buy affordable homes—and be a good neighbor

Eric Kessler likes to be on good terms with his neighbors.

That’s why he plans to show up in July with some of his friends from JEWISHcolorado’s Real Estate & Construction Network (RECN) to help Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver build eight new affordable homes on land owned by Augustana Lutheran Church—JEWISHcolorado’s next-door neighbor.

“This is a great opportunity to give back,” Kessler says. “The members of RECN don’t usually wear tool belts, but building homes is connected to what we do, and this is an opportunity to positively impact our city, county, and neighborhood.”

Painting a houseThat commitment to volunteer is music to the ears of Shayna Wible, who brings unbridled enthusiasm to her role as Faith Partnerships Manager for Habitat Metro Denver.

“Right now, many people who are keeping our communities afloat—like nurses, teachers, firefighters—cannot afford to buy a home,” Wible says. “It’s not because they are not budgeting or working hard. Projects like Augustana Homes is doing something to fix that.”

For Pastor Caitlin Trussell at Augustana, having JEWISHcolorado volunteers join Augustana volunteers to build these new homes demonstrates that the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is universal and transcendent.

“Organizations with different faith traditions but with similar convictions of community can partner to make Augustana Homes real,” she says. “Just as this project has been all-hands-on- deck for our congregation, it will take all hands from the community.”

The story of Augustana Homes starts more than five years ago with one word—a word at the heart of so much of the history of the Rocky Mountain West—“land.”

‘We had the land’

In 2018, Augustana leaders decided it was time to take action about the land adjacent to the church that was occasionally used for overflow parking. It had become a maintenance problem and also a neighborhood problem because of “mischief,” as Pastor Trussell delicately describes it.

Home rendering

At the same time, four members of the congregation attended a brunch held by the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, where they learned that more than 5,000 acres of undeveloped land are owned by congregations in the metro Denver area.

“The situation of religious institutions owning unused land is true for many metro areas,” says Wible. “At Habitat for Humanity, one of our cost barriers to building affordable homes is access to land like that.”

With this information, Augustana members saw an opportunity to use the church’s land as part of its strategic ministry planning and offer it for affordable housing instead of selling it.

“Augustana could have sold that land for a large amount of money,” Wible says. “But as a congregation focused on social justice, they chose to use it to help hardworking families.”

As Augustana prepares for its 150th anniversary, the church is launching a capital campaign. The proceeds from selling the land would have made a significant contribution to campaign fundraising. But in the end, the congregation believed there were ways to find funds for the capital campaign, but there were few ways to find available land.

“We had the land, and in the end, this was a congregational decision,” says Pastor Trussell. “You could argue there was a savvier business decision to be made, but for us, this was a clear decision of conscience and conviction. Our goal is to house folks. These homes could also inspire others to think about how their land could be put to use.”

‘Welcome’

For eight families, Augustana Homes will be a dream come true.

The project comprises eight new homes with three- and four-bedroom layouts, two bathrooms per unit, as well as outdoor green space and dedicated parking. The homes will feature all electric appliances as well as improved insulation to keep homeowners’ utility bills low.

The mortgages will be affordable, with not more than 30% of a family’s income going to housing costs. Augustana’s land will be leased to Habitat Metro Denver for 99 years with an automatic renewal.

Volunteer paintingHabitat Metro Denver is seeking applicants to buy the homes. There are no barriers to obtaining housing because of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, handicap, familial status, or national origin. Habitat ensures successful homeownership by requiring that owners take classes on insurance, managing money, property maintenance, and being a good neighbor.

Volunteers can spend a day working onsite under highly trained staff—no experience necessary. They can also work in a production shop with less strenuous tasks like painting. So whether JEWISHcolorado volunteers come from RECN, Young Adult Division (YAD), Jewish Student Connection (JSC), or the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), they will find purpose in this project.

“Part of our mission for our 150th birthday is to foster new relationships in the wider community,” Pastor Trussell says. “To every volunteer, we say ‘Welcome!’”

The homes will cost more to build than they will sell for, so Habitat Metro Denver welcomes donations. JEWISHcolorado already supports Habitat Metro Denver through Donor-Advised Funds. When making a donation by check or online, write JEWISHcolorado on your check memo or in the online designation box to have your gift designated to Augustana Homes.

Habitat Metro Denver also partners with a number of Jewish congregations including B’nai Chaim, B’nai Havurah, Hebrew Educational Alliance, Rodef Shalom, Temple Emanuel, Temple Micah, and Temple Sinai.

Ultimately, it all comes back to what Eric Kessler said about being a good neighbor.

“The people who will someday own these homes will have the best neighbors in Augustana and JEWISHcolorado,” says Wible. “They will be living next door to organizations that wanted them to be here and have helped them get here.”