Cross-country bikers plan third home build in Tompkins County

By Gillian Nigro and John Brunett

Ithaca – Mar. 3, 2014 – The fire alarm went off yet again in the middle of the night at the Wilcox family’s one-bedroom apartment in Hartford, NY. The couple’s 2-year-old daughter woke up from a dead sleep, and as her cries entwined with the cacophony, the two parents realized they needed to move to a house of their own.

“We had gone to see what kind of housing we could get before and it just wasn’t affordable for us,” Mrs. Wilcox said.

A group of about 30 bikers, hammers in tow, would soon be riding through town to help build one for them.

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Bike & Build is an organization that plans cross-country bicycle trips to benefit affordable housing groups. On a variety of routes, young adults ages 18 to 25 pedal across America’s landscape, stopping every four to five days to build affordable homes for people in need.

Since its founding in 2003, the organization has contributed more than $4.5 million to affordable housing groups throughout the country. Justin Villere, Director of Operations and Outreach at Bike & Build, said the majority of riders are not experienced cyclists before they start.

“We’ve always been of the belief that individuals can learn how to bike,” Villere said. “We’re really looking for people who have a passion for service and adventure to engage in the cause.”

Two Cornell students, Laura Anderson and Kristen Ewing, will be biking 3993 miles from Maine to Santa Barbara in 75 days starting Jun. 19 through Bike & Build. Their route will not pass through Ithaca. Each rider is required to fundraise $4500 to participate in the trip, which will subsidize their travel costs, and also be donated to various affordable housing organizations through a competitive grant program.

The unseasonably cold weather in Ithaca has not been very accommodating for training purposes, and Anderson said when she was riding her new bike for the second time and reached the top of a hill, she fell over into a snow bank.

“I’m pretty scared, but every time we share our fundraising page a little something will trickle in and you think if all those people believe in me, I’ve got to be able to do it,” Anderson said.

As of Mar. 3, Anderson has raised $3215 and Ewing $2645, 71 and 59 percent of their fundraising goals, respectively.

Though neither Anderson nor Ewing were avid cyclists before applying for this cross-country trip, they make up for it with their passion for affordable housing.

“The implications of being able to have a stable roof over your head has a huge impact on your daily life,” Ewing said. “There are so many really great people who are just in a bad place and need help. There’s no shame in that.”

The Wilcox’s moved into their new home on Nov. 26, 2013 after it was built by volunteers of the Tompkins and Cortland County branch of the nonprofit housing organization, Habitat for Humanity. Bike & Build riders on the Providence to Seattle route stopped for a day last summer to assist the construction process. They are set to do the same on Jun. 16 of this year to build a home right next door, which will mark the third contribution of Bike & Build to Tompkins County.

The Wilcox’s daughter now has her own bedroom and the couple is able to get a decent night’s sleep. The experience been life changing, Mrs. Wilcox said.

“It’s really nice to have a place of your own and feel like you can actually settle in,” she said. “Living in an apartment, I never really wanted to decorate and paint a lot because I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. I didn’t want to get attached, whereas this place I can.”

The U.S. Census Bureau defines affordable housing as costing 30 percent or less of a citizen’s monthly income. Under this threshold, New York State is the fifth least affordable state in the nation.

The condition of affordable housing in Tompkins County is deceiving, Director of Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties Shannon MacCarrick said, because the dense population of college students drive up rent.

“As much as there’s a lot of wealth in Tompkins and Cortland Counties, especially in Tompkins close to the universities, you don’t have to drive very far to find a lot of families who are living in tremendously overpriced rental housing that’s in terrible condition,” MacCarrick said. “A lot of college students pay a tremendous amount for rent, so in turn families who are trying to rent are in the same boat.”

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said developing affordable housing projects is a top priority as he begins the third year of his four-year term.

“The cost of housing in Ithaca has climbed unsustainably,” Myrick said. “We need to address it by increasing the supply of housing and increasing the supply of subsidized housing.”

Bike & Build has donated $4900 to Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties over the past three years. Villere said it is possible that number will increase this summer when riders on the Providence to Seattle route pass through Ithaca.

Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties

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