Kearns • When Lillith Bear received the keys for her new Habitat for Humanity house in March 2019, after years of waiting, she thought she finally had achieved the dream of homeownership.
It turned into more of a nightmare.
The air conditioning didn’t work. Promised appliances, like the dishwasher and microwave, were missing. The downstairs floor was bare concrete. The tub wasn’t caulked. Outside, the siding and exterior lights were missing. The new access road didn’t even reach the driveway. In the months that followed, plumbing leaked and flooded. Lights shorted and burned. It took a year to get internet access. Bear still can’t get anyone to collect the garbage.
“It’s one of those things where things are so bad for so long, they become your new normal and you get used to it,” the mother of three said. “Then someone says, ‘I can’t believe you don’t have a trash bin,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re right. I shouldn’t have to sneak into church dumpsters and throw my trash away.’”
(Bear has tried to arrange trash service from other providers, but she said they won’t agree to pick up on the development’s narrow, unfinished road.)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Bear family’s home is part of the “Field of Dreams” development in Kearns, a project pitched by Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity in 2015. The vision was for a neighborhood of 20 energy-efficient, affordable homes on the two-acre site with a shared park at the center. The residents would have zero-interest mortgages and be part of a homeowners association where Habitat for Humanity provided services like garbage collection and landscape maintenance.
When the charity first applied for grant money for the project in 2015, it implied it would be largely finished by 2020.
As of a few weeks ago, however, nearly five years after Habitat for Humanity broke ground on the project, only four duplex-style homes are completed. Three sit vacant.
Most baffling of all to Kearns residents, the charity says it has spent $1.5 million in donations and grants on Field of Dreams to date.
“If they have spent $1.5 million, I’d say half of that is on mistakes,” Bear said, “and redoing stuff they didn’t do right the first time around.”
The delayed and dysfunctional Field of Dreams project has the entire neighborhood talking. Elected officials have listened to regular complaints about the eyesore of a never-ending construction zone.
“The entire community is very frustrated and very annoyed at what’s going on,” said Kearns Community Council chair Paula Larsen, “or I should say, what’s not going on up there.”
Kearns Metro Township Mayor Kelly Bush is demanding better accountability.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve lost sleep over this,” Bush said. “It’s a mess.”
All sources interviewed for this story praised Habitat for Humanity as a national and international charity that shelters struggling families. They said their complaints lie solely with the Salt Lake Valley office, mostly over its management of the Field of Dreams development.
“Why is this project not being done?” Bush said. “Where is the money going?”
Cost challenges and steep learning curves
A banner hanging on the Field of Dreams construction site includes a list of big-name donors that have contributed to the project, including Wells Fargo, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and Rocky Mountain Power. But the biggest donor, kicking in $742,000 to date — almost half the funds spent so far — is Salt Lake County.
At the urging of elected officials like Bush, the county has since placed another $100,000 grant for the project on hold until Habitat for Humanity submits a build-out plan, county officials confirmed.
“We are aware of the concerns raised by this delay in the construction of the project and the impact that has had on Kearns and its residents,” said Catherine Kanter, deputy mayor of regional operations. “We’re actively supporting the township as they work to find a solution.”
Ed Blake, executive director of Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity, largely blamed the project’s delay on the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were going along, then COVID hit,” Blake said. “We lost 18 months to COVID. We shut down volunteers during that period.”
Blake noted that the charity also had to cancel two of its fundraising events. He added that global supply chain slowdowns brought by the pandemic made materials scarce for the project and raised construction costs as well.
“That has been problematic,” Blake said. “Lumber went up 80% or higher; that’s given us some cost challenges.”
The coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout didn’t reach Utah until March 2020. In a 2015 grant application obtained through an open records requests, Blake and his team said they would build five homes each year. It hasn’t built that many in the five years since construction crews went to work.
Blake acknowledged his team had a learning curve with the first duplex.
“When we opted to build a two-story [home],” he said, “we didn’t realize it would take us so much longer.”
The executive director added that energy-efficient materials, like structural insulated panels, take more time to install.
“We’re optimistic about how our future looks in terms of building faster,” he said, estimating it will take another four years to finish all 20 homes.
Blake also provided a document listing the $1.5 million in donations for the project so far and a breakdown of how the money was spent.
The funds do not include in-kind contributions, like donated materials or volunteer work. About $190,000 went to land costs and about the same amount went to labor. Another $32,000 covered property taxes, $57,000 went to architecture, $77,000 went to engineering, and $404,000 went to infrastructure.
“A large part was put in infrastructure, everything underground,” Blake said. “We have curb in there, we have road in there. Then you start building after that.”
(To date, the U-shaped access road for the project is halfway finished.)
The additional “vertical costs” to construct the four existing houses was just over $585,500.
In Habitat for Humanity’s 2015 grant application, it noted the total project cost for all 20 homes would be $3 million — or $150,000 per house.
Regarding overgrown weeds, mounds of dirt that create blowing dust, piles of construction materials and other visual impacts from the site, Blake said the nonprofit has taken steps to beautify the property and that it wasn’t as bad as other construction zones in the area.
“We don’t know why we’re being singled out,” Blake said. “Maybe a nonprofit is a soft target.”
As they fundraised and drummed up press, Habitat for Humanity’s representatives frequently referred to the Field of Dreams homes as the “$1.50 House” because their energy-efficient design was supposed to include 1,500-square-foot units with utility bills that cost the occupants $1.50 a day.
But the architect behind the design, University of Utah associate professor Jörg Rügemer, became frustrated once construction was underway.
“They got a very precise set of plans, and I was on the construction site with my own students for an entire semester, telling them what was important,” Rügemer said. “They were ignoring it and cutting corners.”
The professor said he felt embarrassed that his students were working on the project.
“They were more upbeat than me, and said, ‘We at least learned everything that can go wrong,” Rügemer said. “The work is extremely, sh----; that’s the only word I have for it.”
Rügemer added that he realizes working with volunteers presents challenges, but stated that the construction process was disorganized and the Habitat for Humanity staffers ignored his input.
“They let volunteers build a wall where it doesn’t need to be, and then the next week they tear down the same wall,” Rügemer said. “They’re wasting a lot of time and money, just by doing this stupid stuff. That’s one of the reasons why it takes forever.”
He estimates at least $54,600 was “completely wasted” in materials and labor on the first two units.
Bear was accepted into the Habitat for Humanity program in June 2015. She said the charity never gave her an answer as to why it was taking so long to finish her home.
“For two years, we were being told every month to put in our 30-days notice [to our landlord], because the next month for sure we’d be in our house,” Bear said. “I packed up my entire apartment in June of 2018 because they told me for sure by August 2018 we’d be in.”
In the meantime, Bear and her husband completed their 225 hours each of volunteer “sweat equity” work on other Habitat projects required by the program. She and her family ceremoniously accepted a key to their house at a dedication in September 2018, even though it wouldn’t be ready for another six months.
According to Rügemer, crews rushed so quickly to make the homes appear finished for the ceremony that they later had to rip out walls to add ductwork.
When the time finally did come for the Bear family to close on the three-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom house, Bear received another shock.
“I was told all along the way it would be $150,000,” Bear said. “Then when I went to sign, they said prices went up, so now it’s $195,000.”
A Habitat for Humanity staffer refused to provide a breakdown of the new financial calculation for the homeowners, noting “you are not being forced into buying anything,” emails shared with The Salt Lake Tribune show.
“It was one of those situations of ‘well, you can take it or leave it,’” Bear said. “We just waited four years for this program, put in 450 hours of volunteer work, so of course we still signed.”
Habitat for Humanity also tried to charge the family a $150 monthly HOA fee, Bear said, which she balked at, given there were no other buildings on-site and no HOA services. Bear said the nonprofit relented and cut those costs to $10 a month until the project is complete.
Blake told The Tribune the buyers were given notice of the price increase and the home costs jumped due to rising material expenses. He expects the next round of homes to ring in at $240,000, and he’s trying to keep future units under $300,000. He noted that Habitat for Humanity homeowners do not pay interest on their mortgages, and their monthly payments are low — $650 a month for the Bears’ 35-year term.
“No one can touch us on affordable housing,” Blake said.
‘We don’t want to get punished’
Bear said the the no-interest mortgage is the only positive thing about the Field of Dreams home, and the reason the family members haven’t given up and moved. They get to keep a small fraction of the home’s equity if they sell. (Blake noted that’s because Habitat sells the houses under market value; the policy is meant to prevent buyers from flipping homes.)
And spending their own money on repairs, appliances that were supposed to be included and decent flooring has made the house less affordable than they thought.
“I’m not making money from this,” Bear said. “The reward was supposed to be the discount on a house, being part of a program that was supposed to make things easier for me, not harder.”
Construction crews finished the stucco siding a few months ago, more than two years after the family moved in. A door to an outdoor storage room was improperly hung and Bear has to use a rock to keep it closed. Her rain gutters still aren’t installed, sitting in a heap in the driveway. But Bear said she fears retaliation for complaining about her family’s predicament.
“They’re our lender. They’re our builder,” Bear said. “We don’t want to get punished.”
As recently as March 2020, Bear told The Tribune she still thought she’d made the “right decision” in joining the Field of Dreams project. But she said Blake was nearby, listening to the interview.
“[He] sat there to babysit,” Bear recalled, “and make sure I didn’t say anything out of line.”
Leaving the dream
Kinsella Orr, a single mom and the first homeowner to move into a Field of Dreams home back in January 2019, lived in the other side of the duplex from the Bears and said she had a similar experience to her neighbors. After two years in her house, she decided to move out due to her home’s many issues, which often made her fear for her family’s safety.
“I had more problems in the Field of Dreams home than anywhere I’ve lived,” including much older houses, Orr said. “They acted like they knew what they were doing but didn’t.”
Emails shared with The Tribune show that mere days after she moved in, and continuing for several months, Orr emailed Habitat for Humanity noting issues from exposed wires to leaking pipes to a crack in the floor that kept growing.
She also complained about a loud ventilation fan that was placed in a bedroom instead of a utility closet per the design plans. According to Rügemer, the fan was an important component of the system. The house was designed to be airtight to improve its heating and cooling efficiency, and the fan delivered fresh air to the inside.
Orr said Habitat’s response to her complaints about the fan was simply to switch it off.
“I was told by the architect himself that ... I must leave a window open or my family can get CO2 poisoning!!” Orr wrote in a late 2019 emailed complaint shared with The Tribune.
When both Orr and Bear went to Habitat staffers with concerns, they were told it was their responsibility to fix things as homeowners, emails show.
When they escalated things up to Blake, they said the charity’s boss was often dismissive.
“He’s good at bringing money in for the company, but when it comes to helping the families, he’s not good,” Orr said. “There’s something wrong with the Salt Lake office.”
Asked in an email about his response to the homeowners, Blake said he developed a “punch list” of repair items with the buyers and only noted that Orr had complained about the sound of air coming out of HVAC vents.
On one occasion, Orr said she had to buy thermometers and take pictures of them in bedrooms to prove the heating system was not working. A plumber also had to rip her bathroom walls to the studs due to poorly installed pipes, she said, even after emails show she repeatedly raised leaking water concerns with Habitat staff.
“They do such shoddy work,” Orr said, “that these families are having to dump out money to fix what happened.”
When Orr sold her Field of Dreams home in January, she said she told Habitat for Humanity that she was moving out of state, for fear that it wouldn’t release her from the mortgage.
She’s now paying more than twice as much each month for a home in Taylorsville, but she said she’s much happier now that she’s abandoned the Field of Dreams.
“All the money they get, I don’t understand where it went,” Orr said. “It was a horrible experience.”