On a sunny August morning, dozens of volunteers sporting green "Project Home" T-shirts surrounded a house on Madison's east side, paint brushes and ladders in hand. It was one of the stops for the nonprofit's 30th annual Paint-a-thon, an event that brings people of all ages together to give a new coat of paint to houses of local owners who could use some assistance. (Click here to view video.)
Project Home got its start in 1970 as a group of neighbors helping neighbors with their homes. Over the years as the needs have grown, it has added more trained and certified staff, but it still continues its mission to improve the quality and affordability of housing for low-to-moderate income residents in Dane and Green counties.
The painting program is just one of many the nonprofit offers, including its newer water conservation program and Serving Those Who Served program, which along with its Blooze Krooze music festival and car show fundraiser helps military veterans with home repairs, accessibility modifications, and energy efficiency improvements.
Outreach manager Jason Hafeman has been with Project Home for nearly a decade, and he said there are tons of people who might not realize they could be eligible for these programs. "Eighty percent of the median family income is the gauge for many of these programs," he said.
Unfortunately, what he has seen throughout the years are instances where living conditions in some homes have deteriorated to the point where they are "too far gone" for the budgets of these programs to make an impact. That's why it's so important to be proactive about home maintenance and repairs, from a leaky roof or missing piece of siding to electrical or plumbing concerns. "We can help take care of maintenance issues and smaller repairs now so they don't become big costs down the road," he said. "The intent is to upkeep the property so people can stay in their homes."
While there are other organizations that do similar things as Project Home, what sets it apart is that it's not a regional branch of a larger national organization. Hafeman said while this has somewhat hindered its visibility, the nonprofit can be more "responsive and mobile and make adjustments as needed" because it only has its board to answer to rather than a corporate hierarchy. Plus, Project Home has seen great support from both county governments, and its employees enjoy working toward the same goal. "I see companies looking for skilled tradespeople, and so many people stay here (at Project Home), which speaks to how we treat our employees, the belief in what we're doing, and our team's commitment to the community."
A few years ago, Project Home also launched its Optimus division so the staff can be hired out as contractors at market rate for people of any income level. "We have free estimates and bid on projects of all sizes and shapes," Hafeman said, including kitchen and bathroom remodels, window and door replacements, energy efficiency projects, decks and ramps, and water heater, toilet, and plumbing repairs. What's unique is that the proceeds from these jobs go to support Project Home's other programs.
Hafeman said the Optimus initiative was in response to the funding cuts to government-funded programs such as weatherization. Project Home wanted to create enough work for its staff while also generating funds to support the nonprofit. In the last three years, Optimus has done about 60 projects each year and is booked out a couple of months in advance.
Project Home also holds free home maintenance classes at local libraries throughout the year. Homeowners can ask questions, be more informed about hiring contractors, and learn about topics such as cost effective energy improvements, common bathroom repairs and replacements, basic household plumbing, and painting tips. "We want to share our knowledge with people in the community and help them have a safe, comfortable and healthy home," Hafeman said.
Since Project Home is tapped into a network of private, city, state, county, and federal programs, Hafeman said he recommends people reach out to them rather than spending hours sifting through information on their own. Especially since there are many variables that come into play, from deferred or forgivable loans to subsidized labor rates. "Email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call us (608-246-3737) so we can help identify programs you're eligible for and ways we can help," he said.