Article and photos by Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Charly Ngeleka spent his Friday afternoon on a scaffold, lifting solar panels up to the installation team on the roof. He and another half-dozen volunteers were working on a partially-finished duplex in Harrisonburg, one being built by the Central Valley Habitat for Humanity.
When completed, it’ll become Ngeleka’s home.
“My dream has come true, so I’m so, so happy,” he told The Citizen.
Ngeleka, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, alternated speaking between English and French, with the translation assistance of Habitat for Humanity volunteer Dale Flaten. When asked how Ngeleka felt about seeing the house come together, he and Flaten conversed back and forth in French for a moment.
“Big smile!” Flaten said in English, and they laughed together.
Ngeleka came to Harrisonburg with his family seven years ago because his older brother was in the area. He and his wife now have four children, ages two to 14. He works second shift at George’s Foods.
Habitat for Humanity’s program offers several benefits for his family aside from helping the Ngelekas become homeowners. Their half of the duplex has four bedrooms and two baths, compared to the two-bedroom apartment they’re currently renting. And the monthly mortgage payments will be cheaper than their current rent.
David Wenger, executive director of Central Valley Habitat for Humanity, said the organization sells the finished houses to qualified families at a 0% interest rate.
“The mortgages start below what a typical for-profit builder would make because we’re offsetting costs through volunteers and donations and the family working on things, and then they get the 0% interest. So, as we say, we’re giving them a helping hand, but they do have a mortgage,” he said.
The nonprofit screens families based on five qualifications: they have to be making at or below 60% of the local area median income (AMI), be willing to put some “sweat equity” into the construction, be residents of Harrisonburg or Rockingham County, be financially stable enough to make mortgage payments and have a need for the home based on the state of their current housing.
Friday’s solar barn-raising was a result of the Habitat chapter’s budding partnership with GiveSolar, an organization that assists other nonprofits and low-income homeowners get access to solar energy.
Wenger said the solar installation will save the homeowners money on their electric bill.
“A big part of what we do is trying to create financial stability,” he said, “because we know that folks in our area … the ALICE [Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed] population are working hard to try to get ahead, but still have to make choices between ‘Do I pay a medical bill or do I pay my electric bill. or do I pay my mortgage in a given month?’”
The 24-panel solar installation will save the homeowners an average of $40-$50 a month. They pay off the panels at the rate of $20 a month, also at a 0% interest rate.
“Without this arrangement, it would be much more difficult for solar to happen on these houses,” said GiveSolar Director Jeff Heie. “I think the way that we make it more accessible is by doing this long-term, zero-interest loan.”
This is the second Habitat project that’s been solarized through the partnership. The first was a duplex up in Broadway, where GiveSolar installed panels in March.
In May, typically one of the best solar-producing months for this area because of the angle of the sun, that solar installation produced 575 kilowatt hours, or $73 worth of electricity.
GiveSolar has launched a Solar Seed Fund to front the cost of each $5,000 solar system.
Heie said an anonymous family endowment recently gave $10,000, bringing the total fund close to $38,000. The anonymous donors also pledged to match new donations until the fund reaches its goal of $100,000.
“We want to remind people that Habitat continues to build houses, and that they should support Habitat in an ongoing way. The Solar Seed Fund is kind of a one-off. Once we get to our goal, we’re not going to be raising more funds, at least not in this area,” Heie said.
Wenger walked up as Heie was saying this.
“I come at it from a position of abundance,” Wenger replied. “If there’s a limited amount of resources, then you get into, well, ‘You can’t take mine.’ But particularly in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, it’s such a giving area, that if you can get people to see the value — even if it’s value to others — they’ll contribute.”
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