After Success in Bucoda, Habitat for Humanity Plans to Help Revitalize Communities in Thurston County Through Partnerships

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Jonathan Thomas has been busy over the last year and a half knocking on doors and making inroads with community organizations to determine and meet community needs in Bucoda.

Now he has his sights set on Yelm.

Thomas is the neighborhood revitalization manager for the South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity, with the neighborhood revitalization program being an initiative that seeks to help communities flourish by empowering residents to meet each other's needs through shared values and community partnerships.

South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity purchased 2.3 acres at 407 Longmire Ave., Yelm, in March 2020 using the Housing Finance Commission's Land Acquisition Program and currently plans to build 22 homes in Yelm by 2025, though that goal may be extended.

“We (recently) bought land out in Yelm and we have land in Tumwater as well,” Thomas said. “The Yelm project will be … a combination of townhomes (and) age-in-place homes, like bungalows for seniors. We can only do so much with the houses, being a nonprofit, so we are seeing if we can do another program we have called neighborhood revitalization.”

The program was launched in Bucoda, as Thomas spent the better part of 2021 going through the community and working with partner organizations such as the town’s community coalition and its service center as well as Bethel Church and Joe’s Tavern, among others, to help support the community at a grassroots level.

“We’re trying to expand what we do, try to offer more products to the community,” Thomas said. “Neighborhood revitalization is about improving the quality of life for residents of a particular neighborhood or community as a whole. And we're trying to expand that.”

In Bucoda, Habitat for Humanity has helped facilitate community gatherings designed to promote community and togetherness in a world separated by technological or health barriers.

One event that came out of the effort was held last September, where community members met for hot cocoa and to receive warm gloves for the impending winter. The slogan of the program was "bring warmth and growth to Bucoda." Another event was where kids were able to meet and greet Santa in December.

“With neighborhood revitalization, we try to take an empowerment approach versus a betterment approach,” Thomas said. “A betterment approach being that (someone) goes in and tells you what’s wrong with the neighborhood or community and how to fix it. We try to do the empowerment approach, where we try to prioritize residents and champion their voices.”

Habitat for Humanity is trying to put the community at the forefront of its efforts with the program so it can assess the needs and wants and concerns of residents, he said.

“We try to take a step forward by taking a step back,” Thomas said. “We partner with (residents) and we partner with other organizations in the community to try to build that quality of life.”

When identifying a community for the program, Thomas said he looks at things like the low-to-moderate median family income of the area, homeownership, rental market numbers and what community coalitions or community work is going on in an area. He also looks at housing values and what’s called the distressed community index, which weighs many of the factors Thomas listed.

Bucoda and Yelm were identified as prime candidates for the program through assessing the criteria, he said.

“We try to bring it back to what it means to be a community, what it means to identify with each other, what it means to connect with each other, what it means to support each other,” Thomas said. “We try to bring the community together ... and address their needs so people don’t have to go outside the community to meet their needs.”

Yelm residents shouldn’t be surprised if they see Thomas out in the community, meeting folks and trying to gather organizations to partner with Habitat for the betterment of the communities in the city, just like he has in Bucoda.

One of the things the neighborhood revitalization program can help identify is where Habitat can deploy its critical home repair program.

“We are really trying to help repair the homes of people who cannot move, or are on a fixed income,” Thomas said. “That can be anyone from veterans, to disadvantaged homeowners, disabled vulnerable adults, and young families.”

It’s a program for homeowners between 0 and 80% of the area median income who are current on their mortgage and insurance payments and have an identified critical home repair need.

An example project would be the construction of a wheelchair ramp into someone's home.

Thomas said the critical home repair program ties right into neighborhood revitalization. Also, if there’s a strong, empowered community for the homes that Habitat plans to build in Yelm, that’s all for the good of everyone involved.

“We’re trying to improve people’s lives outside of just building homes because we can only do so much of that,” Thomas said. “We have the (Habitat) store in Yelm, and we have the property, so we’re trying to help out the Yelm community by the neighborhood revitalization program.

“Like, is there an avenue for us to help with these critical home repairs? Where are people that can use this? That’s what we’re trying to find. We’re trying to find and really help these people that really need a hand up to help improve quality of life and dignity, but also identify if there’s a place that could use this community development,” he said.