One house at a time. One family at a time. One community at a time. That’s how Br. Mike Wilmot, SJ, approaches his goal to help alleviate poverty and stabilize neighborhoods in North Omaha – through the ministry of GESU Housing, Inc.
The mission of GESU Housing 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 80 percent median family income guidelines,” he explains. “In the process, we believe we are also re-building a community in North Omaha.”
The origins of this ministry 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, and the School’s concrete contractor. Recognizing the energy efficiency benefits that poured concrete/foam insulation exterior walls could provide, and feeling a calling to help the area’s working poor people realize the dream of home ownership, Br. Wilmot began building concrete houses with Phil.
(Because concrete homes are more expensive than wood, GESU has since turned to wood frames – but is maintaining its goal of greater energy efficiency than a typical home construction by using 2x6 frame plans, which allow for more insulation than a 2x4 frame.)
As for the location to begin his mission, Br. Wilmot chose the Clifton Hills neighborhood, for three major reasons. First, it is where he lives: He and four other Jesuits have their residence there, in Mulumba House. This helps set GESU Housing apart from other low-income homebuilders; it’s part of the community. Second, there is a significant need, with “plenty of vacant lots, a lack of home ownership and noticeable urban decay,” he says.
Finally, the neighborhood 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.
While the results speak for themselves, there remains much work to be done.
“With the efforts of GESU Housing, our Board of Directors and many generous benefactors, 17 families have or will soon become homeowners, and some of the risk of further decline in the North Omaha community has been eliminated,” says Br. Wilmot. “With proper funding, we would like to build six houses per year, and hope to eventually have 100 new houses in a concentrated area. We will fight to continue this improvement one neighborhood at a time.”
If he needs a reminder as to why he continues that fight, Br. Wilmot thinks back to each closing. “It is incredibly rewarding to give the keys to a new house to a family or individual who has worked hard to reach this dream,” he says.
Just ask one of GESU’s first home buyers, who wrote, “My prayer for GESU is that God uses your organization to build more than just homes, but also families and communities. That’s what Jesus (Gesu) did!”