One house, one family and one community at a time. That’s how Jesuit Brother Mike Wilmot approaches his goal to help alleviate poverty and stabilize neighborhoods in North Omaha, Neb., through his Gesu Housing, Inc. ministry.
Gesu Housing’s mission is to build and sell high-quality, affordable, energy-efficient homes to people who are hard-working and have a good credit rating, but who live below the area’s 80 percent median family income and are therefore considered low-income by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “In the process, we believe we are also re-building a community in North Omaha,” Br. Wilmot says.
The origins of Gesu Housing can be traced to 1994, when Br. Wilmot returned from serving Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda to help build Omaha’s Jesuit Middle School. There, he worked with Phil McKeon, a former student of his at Creighton Prep in Omaha, and the school’s concrete contractor. Recognizing the energy efficiency benefits that poured concrete walls could provide and feeling a calling to help the area’s working poor realize the dream of home ownership, Br. Wilmot began building concrete houses with McKeon, and Gesu Housing was born in 2002.
Since then, Gesu Housing has turned to building wood frame houses because they are less expensive, but its goal of building energy-efficient homes remains.
Br. Wilmot chose to start building in his own neighborhood, Clifton Hills, where he and several Jesuits have their residence. This sets Gesu Housing apart from other low-income homebuilders because it’s part of the community. The community has a significant need, with “plenty of vacant lots, a lack of home ownership and noticeable urban decay,” Br. Wilmot says.
The neighborhood also qualifies as a “low-to moderate-income” area, per government guidelines. After qualifying for federal grants through the Omaha Planning Department, hopeful families are then able to take out a mortgage. The goal is to have these families own a higher-quality, more attractive house than much of the lower-income housing that is available – for a monthly payment of approximately $600. Because the federal grant and homeowner loan do not cover the cost of each house, Gesu depends on fundraising for the rest.
Br. Wilmot says that with proper funding, the goal is to build six houses each year. “We will fight to continue this improvement one neighborhood at a time.”
Each home closing is a reminder of why Br. Wilmot does this work. “It’s incredibly rewarding to give the keys for a new house to a family or individual who has worked hard to reach this dream,” he says.
For more on Gesu Housing and Br. Wilmot, visit the Wisconsin Province website.