Local family builds a foundation in Birch Bay

By Stefanie Donahue

After nearly four years of waiting, hundreds of hours of pre-construction labor and several anxious conversations with staff at the Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County, a local family of seven is eager to set foot in a home of their own.

With support from the Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County, Julio Ortiz, his wife Juana Mendoza and their five kids will be able to live in an affordable home in Birch Bay. After a years-long permitting process, Ortiz, Mendoza and local volunteers kicked off their first day of construction on October 8.

“The wait is over, finally,” said Holly Harkener, publicist with Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County.

The property, located on Leeside Drive in Birch Bay, is close to the shoreline and is considered a class four wetland under state standards, which means the land contains special building restrictions by law. As a result, staff with Habitat for Humanity had to go through a complicated mitigation process to receive a building permit.

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Julio Ortiz, l., his daughter Alina Ortiz, c., and his wife Juana Mendoza pose for a photo at the Habitat for Humanity office in Whatcom County, located on 1825 Cornwall Avenue in Bellingham. Photo by Stefanie Donahue.

In late September, the team received approval from the county. Since then, they’ve started removing debris from the property and are preparing to lay the foundation. What once was a community dumping ground for old cars and garbage will be a new state-of-the art home in a surrounding subdivision.

The thought of stepping foot into a home of his own brings a smile to Ortiz’s face – it hasn’t always been easy for him and his family.

They became involved with Habitat for Humanity in 2011 after receiving a recommendation from family and shortly after applied for the program. At the time, they were sharing a two-bedroom home with another family in Everson. A total of 10 people were living in the space, he said.

In 2006, Ortiz moved to the U.S. from Guatemala to be closer to family in Washington. He’s the sole financial provider for his family and has worked at Clark’s Berry Farm in Lynden since 2007. He spends several months out of the year as a general laborer and supervisor for on-site equipment – during harvest, he works up to 16 hours per day.

He’s been denied loans to buy a home, so he’s pursued assistance through the Bellingham Housing Authority, which helps to provide affordable housing to those in need. Currently, Ortiz and his family live in Birch Bay with help from the organization.

Before crews arrived at the property in October, Ortiz and his family put in what Habitat for Humanity calls “sweat equity,” which requires partner homebuyers to complete 500 hours of labor at the organization – whether that be assisting with home building or volunteering at a store location, event or in the office.

Families are also asked to put down $500 on the home, which is purchased from Habitat for Humanity at its valued cost. The organization finances the home at 0 percent interest. Staff estimate Ortiz and his family will be paying about $350 per month on the mortgage, all while building home equity.

Selection is based on financial and other needs and all applicants undergo an extensive vetting process by volunteer staff before receiving approval. The Habitat for Humanity board of directors selects participating families anonymously.

In Whatcom County, 18 percent of families are in poverty, according to statistics from Habitat for Humanity. Since 1988, the organization is responsible for building 36 homes in the county.

“The whole program is a hand up, not a hand out,” said Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County executive director John Moon. “They’ll know every inch of their house.”

Moon said staff are taking steps to make the home energy net zero. They’ve already received 14 solar panels donated by Western Solar and plan to make additional measures to reduce energy costs and waste.

Staff with Habitat for Humanity are expecting about 10 to 12 work groups to help in construction, including groups taking part in Women Build, an international Habitat for Humanity program dedicated to women with an interest in learning construction skills.

Ortiz and his family are very excited about the months ahead. His kids, he said, are eager to move in. They’ll even get to stay in the same school district, he said.

“We are so happy,” Ortiz said.

Habitat for Humanity staff are hoping to complete the project by the beginning of the next school year. Project volunteers are holding a permit party, outfitted with cake, balloons and champagne, on Sunday, October 30. The public is invited to attend, and
to volunteer.

Those interested in lending a hand are invited to volunteer at a build site, in the store or at an event. To learn more, visit hfhwhatcom.org.

“There are always ways to help our mission,” Harkener said.

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