An undeveloped Yorkville subdivision could be flipped into a community for veterans in the near future.
The Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery hopes to construct 116 homes along Benjamin Street in a subdivision east of downtown Yorkville in a bid to offer housing relief to vets and their families. An effort titled Operation Home America, the project would be the most ambitious project to date for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter.
“We didn’t want to do it on a small scale, we wanted to do it on a big scale,” said Jeff Barrett, executive director of the Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity.
The Benjamin Street subdivision is an ideal candidate for such an undertaking, say Habitat for Humanity officials and volunteers. The neighborhood already has $5 million of infrastructure put into it, yet was stunted by the 2008 recession and resulting housing crisis and remains undeveloped.
Habitat intends to put a $1.2 million down payment on the land this month, with a groundbreaking on the development anticipated for this fall.
But the development will go beyond a typical subdivision. Not only will homeowners assist in construction, but a community center is planned for the neighborhood. There, residents can participate in group therapy, job training and other community resources.
“I just think Yorkville is going to be so lucky to have this happen,” said Yorkville resident and local Habitat executive coordinator Ron Kelso. “Operation Home America is an outstanding opportunity for us to place veterans in our local businesses... That ripple effect that goes out in all the ways that make veterans so awesome to work with is going to manifest itself in our city.”
U.S. Air Force veteran Lawella Szweda lives in an Aurora home renovated by Habitat for Humanity. A volunteer working to raise funds and awareness around the Yorkville project, Szweda said “people that go into the community will already have a bond from their experience just in the military.”
“It would be not only a veterans community, it would be a family,” she said.
After losing her home during the financial crisis, Szweda struggled to find stable housing for years. She eventually heard by chance about Habitat for Humanity and applied for housing.
“I pretty much gave myself a 3% chance of getting a home,” she said. “I was totally shocked when I did find out I was accepted into the program.”
The aim of the proposed Yorkville site is to help veterans like Szweda get easier access to a place to live.
About 1.5 million veterans spend more than 50% of their income on housing, according to a 2013 study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The Habitat for Humanity project in Yorkville hopes to lessen that burden, capping at 30% the amount of income used to pay mortgages for homes along Benjamin Street at 30%.
“It doesn’t matter what its appraised at, this will be based on whatever their income is,” Barrett said, emphasizing that Habitat puts all prospective homeowners through personal finance training.
“It is a special process,” he said. “They do have to apply. We check like any other mortgage company would, but our standards are more lenient: credit scores can be lower, debt can be higher.”
While there is no formal application for placement in the subdivision at this point, organizers say they’re still deep in the fundraising process. Those interested in donating can contribute directly to Operation Home America through the Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity.
Public hearings before the Yorkville City Council are pending too, though Habitat maintains they have support from officials and the general community.
“This is about working families who just need a hand up,” Barrett said.
Kelso, the executive coordinator for the local Habitat chapter, emphasized that they had seen only one foreclosure in their years of providing housing assistance.
“It’s our hope that what we do here in Yorkville becomes a model that other habit affiliates and others can take across the country,” he said.
Lucas Robinson covers politics, courts, schools and the pandemic in Kendall County and Yorkville for Shaw Media. His work has previously appeared in the Chicago Reader, the Buenos Aires Times, Open Secrets and USAToday. He grew up in Muncie, Indiana.