CEDAR RAPIDS — For the first time in around 60 years, a new house has gone up in Cedar Rapids’ Second and Third Avenue Historic District. Habitat for Humanity of the Cedar Valley dedicated the home Monday after working with the city to design a new house that would fit in with the century-old homes around it.
Every aspect of the exterior, from the siding to the type of front door to the type of foundation, was carefully vetted by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which is usually called on to approve historically accurate changes to existing homes, rather than entirely new ones.
“The main challenge was there weren’t really new house standards,” Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity executive director Jeff Capps said. “The commission was very excited about it, but they didn’t have a blueprint of what would be acceptable.”
The residence that had previously stood there had burned down in 2012, after which Habitat for Humanity acquired the property.
The home is unique not just for the neighborhood but for the nonprofit. The local Habitat affiliate had never built a two-story house before, Capps said, but the smaller lot sizes in the neighborhood and the need to blend with the surrounding houses made it a necessity. Though they usually rely on volunteer labor, out of safety considerations they hired contractors to put on the roof of this house.
He said he hopes Habitat will be building more houses in the city’s core neighborhoods in the future, now that they have a blueprint and an idea of how to build homes that fit the style.
“I’ve had multiple people ask, ‘Is this a new house or a rehab?’ That’s the ultimate compliment,” he said. “I would love to do more like this ... We’ve done so much in this community, in Wellington Heights, but it has mostly been owner-occupied repairs.”
For new homeowners Donacien Nzeyimana and Safila Fedisoni, the Habitat house is “a miracle,” Nzeyimana said. The couple, originally from Burundi, have four daughters, ages 6, 4, 3 and 5 months.
Nzeyimana works hard at Heinz Foods to care for his family — his boss let him take a break in the middle of a shift for the dedication, but as soon as the celebration was over he was heading back to work. Still, he said he and his wife, who cares for the children full time, weren’t able to get a loan to buy a house until they connected with Habitat. The apartment they have been living in was not good, he said, with a leaking ceiling, water damage and bad smells.
“I have no words to express the joy I have tonight,” he said during the dedication, speaking through a translator. “I also thank the government and social organizations that have given assistance and advice in order to help us as immigrants.”
Under Habitat’s “hand up, not a hand out” model, Nzeyimana and Fedisoni put sweat equity via volunteer hours into the home and have to make mortgage payments to pay the nonprofit back for the house, which allows Habitat to reinvest in future builds.
Nzeyimana wanted to go further than that. At Monday’s dedication, he pledged to donate $300 to Habitat, both to say thank you and to help others like his family.
There were many reasons to celebrate Monday. This year marks Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity’s 30th year working in the Cedar Rapids area. Monday was also World Habitat Day, a day designated by the United Nations to raise awareness about homelessness around the globe.
In addition, the house was the local Habitat “Beloved Community” build. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family spearheaded the Beloved Community partnership, with Habitat for Humanity projects across the country in honor of the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, aiming to work toward his vision of access, equality and opportunity for all.
Churches along Third Avenue SE banded together on the effort, raising more than $10,000 for the build and holding volunteer days. Rather than each church having it’s own build day, they urged congregants to mix and mingle and work together. It was a way of further building the “beloved community,” said Rev. Heather Hayes of First Presbyterian Church. At a time when the country is sharply divided on many issues, she said that was a more important goal than ever.
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“We can come together over the idea that people should have a roof over their heads and a shelter from the storm,” she said.
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