Home on the horizon
Four families will help Habitat build their affordable houses this year.
Lisa and Jim Wolfgang and their 2-year-old twin daughters, Isabella and Sophia, are one of four families selected by Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton Area to build and occupy a home in Teton Village. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Emma Breysse, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
July 11, 2012
Four families who have struggled to find decent housing will become homeowners in 2013, thanks to Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton Area.
Since Habitat’s chapter began here in 1995, the nonprofit has built 23 affordable homes, helping 23 families obtain housing with no-interest mortgages.
This spring, Habitat’s selection committee chose four families to become owners of new homes in Teton Village. Most are living paycheck to paycheck. All are living in housing that’s too tight or too expensive.
Each family must invest 500 hours of “sweat equity” in the building of its home. Others who want to help are welcome: Habitat asks for volunteers from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at the job site in Teton Village.
The Wolfgangs: Clear and present danger
Jim and Lisa Wolfgang know that sooner or later, 2-year-old twins and a masonry yard will end up being a bad combination.
Palettes stacked high with stone slabs towering over their small garden behind Rocky Mountain Supply are a daily reminder of why they need to leave the two-bedroom apartment they turned from a dump to a home.
For a young newlywed couple fighting the vagaries of the Jackson rental market, the two-bedroom Highway 89 apartment was a dream come true. The Wolfgangs’ former landlord raised the rent of their basement apartment too high for them to afford. After a search full of dead ends, a friend introduced them to their current landlord. They moved in shortly afterward.
Four years and two children later, the Wolfgangs started to realize their cozy apartment would soon be cramped. In the meantime, the ever-present machinery and industrial equipment on one side of their yard, and Flat Creek on the other side, made them increasingly nervous for twins Sophia and Isabella.
“This apartment has served us so well,” Jim Wolfgang said, “but it just doesn’t serve the purpose anymore.”
Now that Sophia and Isabella can walk on their own and are growing more adventurous while playing outside, living behind a masonry yard is no longer practical, or even really safe, Lisa Wolfgang, a native of the United Kingdom, said.
“It’s quite scary, because you can’t take your eyes off them for a second,” she said. “We want them to really have a neighborhood where they can play and make friends.”
Their original house hunt didn’t last very long before they realized the Jackson real estate market didn’t have much within reach for waitress Lisa and nurse’s aide Jim. At the beginning of a new year, they were in a situation all too common for Jackson renters: wondering how long they could afford to stay.
Applying for one of the homes Habitat For Humanity of the Greater Teton Area is building in Teton Village seemed like a long shot, but it turned into a dream come true when they were chosen to be one of the newest Habitat homeowner families.
The next year will be consumed by building their house. Much of the burden will fall on Jim, since Sophia and Isabella are too young to be on the job site, but both Wolfgang parents said sacrificing one year is a small price to pay to have a home of their own.
“It’s given us a foundation,” Lisa Wolfgang said. “It’s made us feel more settled. It has me, because I know this is where we’re going to stay for many, many years. No one can make us leave.”
The Aughenbaughs: Third time’s the charm
When Jeremy and Felice Aughenbaugh applied for a Habitat for Humanity house this year, it was the third time they had tried to become homeowners.
Earlier attempts via affordable housing and last year’s Habitat project failed, leaving the Aughenbaughs and their three young children in the same place they started: happy but tenuous.
The Aughenbaughs have lived in Jackson — Felice’s birthplace — for all eight years of their marriage and have been finding their way through the uncertain rental market here for the same amount of time. In a lot of ways, they’ve been lucky, Jeremy said.
“The right doors have always opened,” he said. “We’ve been very blessed.”
Their home near South Park Loop Road has enough room for the whole family, and they’ve been able to stay there for longer than their three children have been alive.
At the same time, with their oldest child, Jamison only 3 years old, and brothers Owen and Liam at 2 years and 5 months old, respectively, Felice is unable to work beyond sporadic baby-sitting. Jeremy owns Liberty Painting and works for other businesses as a painter, but no matter how careful they are, the family lives paycheck to paycheck.
A few business debts take up the extra money not spent on rent and bills. Statistically speaking, they can’t always be lucky.
So when they got the news that this time they would get a Habitat home, it opened up a way out of uncertainty.
“I was really shocked, actually, that the likes of us were going to live in Teton Village,” Jeremy Aughenbaugh said. “And just really, really grateful for what it means to us.”
Aughenbaugh’s face lights up as he talks about the chance to have a savings account for the first time in his marriage with the money his family will save on rent, and the certainty that he and Felice can raise their boys in Jackson.
“I don’t know what that’s like, to have that financial security,” he said. “We’ve never had it before. Not wondering how to pay this bill this month, to have a home we can call our own: It’s probably the biggest thing for us.”
The Haldemans: 42 miles from real life
Getting by is a balancing act for Keith and Zara Haldeman and their four children.
When high rents sent them to Alpine to live, they got lower rent for a bigger house and a yard for the kids to play in. In return, they spend $400 to $500 per month on gasoline so the kids can go to school in Jackson, where Keith works. Plus, their utility bills can be astronomical, especially on a carpenter’s salary.
Even with the lower rent, the Haldeman home doesn’t have anywhere near enough furniture for a six-person family. When forced to choose between paying bills and buying furniture, bills always win.
“We have no family time, because we’re always commuting,” Keith Haldeman said. “There are no family dinners, no family breakfasts. We’re just never together.”
Keith’s employment status varies. As a carpenter, he sometimes goes weeks or months between jobs. There are times when unemployment payments just aren’t enough. Not too long ago, the Community Resource Center stepped in to cover rent and utilities for a few months.
Last year, the family was within a hair’s breadth of moving to Montana when Keith decided to volunteer for Habitat For Humanity as a way of “paying back” the community that helped his family. It got him on the organization’s email list just in time to receive an invitation to apply for a home of his own.
Now, as one of the four prospective homeowners, the Haldemans’ future has changed overnight.
“We had been here trying to live, trying to get by, and then, just as we’re about to leave, we saw this happen,” Keith Haldeman said. “It’s really a miracle that this came our way.”
The Haldemans have a 20-year history as Jackson Hole renters, first as a newlywed couple, then as parents. The constant moving got wearying, and as their children got more numerous — 14-year-old Shyla is the oldest, followed by 12-year-old Kristen, 10-year-old Katie and 3-year-old Benjamin — fewer and fewer landlords were willing to rent to them.
At the same time, owning a home was not an option given real estate prices. Keith dreamed of building a home for his family one day, but once again, cost made it a distant dream.
“We’ve been paying other people’s mortgages for 20 years,” he said. “We’ve been working for 20 years and have nothing to show in this town. I build multimillion-dollar homes for people who don’t even live there. Now I get to build a house in the village for myself. That is just so incredible to me.”
The Hernandezes: Keeping the American Dream Alive
Judith Hernandez’s childhood was filled with moves between Jackson and Mexico as her family’s fortunes rose and fell.
Her family moved to Jackson when she was 11. At the time, she said, it were one of the only Latino families in the area, and many fewer people spoke Spanish.
She can remember moving to keep up with Jackson rents at least four times when she was a child, and more than once having no choice but to follow her parents back to Mexico.
“It was hard, changing like that,” she said. “Because it happened to me, I don’t want it to happen to my kids.”
Hernandez and her two children — 10-year-old Omar and 5-year-old Judy — live in one bedroom of a two-bedroom home on Cache Creek Drive. The other room is rented out to a family of four. The two families share the living room and kitchen. Hernandez holds two waitressing jobs to make ends meet as she works to get her GED.
Having grown up in Jackson, Hernandez knows even that situation could end without any warning.
“We’re here today, and tomorrow the landlord could say, ‘You’re out of here’ for whatever reason he wants,” she said. “And when you go to buy a house here, you find out how hard it is. You can’t even think about it.”
For a single mother, the next move could be the one that forces her to try again somewhere else, maybe even Mexico, though she is an American citizen. She has turned over every rock she could to buy a house. Researching Habitat for Humanity, she said she thought it was worth a try.
She turned out to be right.
Hernandez will spend the next year building her house in Teton Village as one of the four new homeowners.
“It’s a hard town to be living in, but I don’t want to leave,” she said. “I’m definitely grateful. It’s going to be a huge change and a nice change.”
She said that, along with the ability to stay in the town she has lived in her whole life, the new home is valuable for her family because for the first time, they will have their own space. While she said she gets along with the family that shares their home, seven people in 600 square feet is quite a squeeze.
“Everyone’s going to have their own room,” she said. “We don’t have to be sharing the house with anyone. My kids get to experience having their own home.”