Early in his life as a brother in the Society of Jesus, his superiors asked Mike Willmot what kind of work he wanted to do. The former Marquette (Milwaukee, Wis.) University High School three-sport athlete said he wanted to coach. Perhaps as a lesson in obedience or humility, the Jesuits instead had him learn cabinet making and welding.
It was hard to see the practicality of it. But the rough-hewn Wilmot eventually became a teacher, coaching basketball and football and serving as dean of students at Omaha Creighton Prep. “Looking back on it I’m glad that happened because I’ve used in my coaching and in my teaching those construction skills for many projects, and I’m still using them,” he says. “I’m still building and welding.”
Among other things, he integrates railroad spikes and other found metal in creating welded sculptures. A large cross he made adorns the grounds at St. James Catholic Church. His home-building mission came into focus when, during a mid-1990s sabbatical serving Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda, he helped construct a school and thus fulfilled a basic tenet of his Jesuit calling.
“In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that,” he says.
His small Gesu Housing Inc. nonprofit is the latest manifestation of putting his building know-how to work in service of his faith. Acting as a developer, Gesu (Italian for Jesus) builds affordable, energy efficient homes for the working poor in north Omaha. Now in his 70s, Wilmot walks with a hitch in his step after decades of jogging wore out his hips and necessitated replacement surgeries.
“The mission of Gesu housing is to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods,” says Wilmot.
Ten completed Gesu homes, all but one occupied, stand out from older homes on a two-block stretch of Burdette Street from 43rd to 42nd. He expects to start four new houses this fall. He says the well-built homes, which feature extra thick walls and insulation, get lots of play from interested buyers. Gesu has until now built concrete homes, but is embarking on wood frame construction to see which offers the most cost and energy efficiency.
Unlike many who serve social justice needs in north Omaha but live elsewhere, Wilmot lives in the Clifton Hills neighborhood where he works. He and four Jesuits reside at Mulumba House, a Creighton University satellite Jesuit community with a dedicated inner city presence.
“We felt this was the place we wanted to live,” says Wilmot. “We thought it would be a good idea to live with the people that we’re working for.”
Gesu partially funds its projects through the federal Housing and Urban Development monies through the Omaha City Planning Department. The three-bedroom homes cost $180,000 to construct and sell at well-below market rates to qualified first-time home buyers through Omaha100, a consortium of public-private partnerships dedicated to making home ownership possible for families with low to moderate income.
When Eva Powell and her three foster children took possession of their Gesu home August 20 it marked the gratifying end to a two-year process of searching and applying for a home.
“Oh, it was awesome. It was emotional,” says Powell, who works at International Gamco Inc. “It’s my own. It’s my house.”
She enjoys the two-car attached garage and a wrap-around porch and plentiful closet space among other features. She plans turning the unfinished basement into a rec room. Powell praises the way she was treated in the home qualification process, says of Omaha100 loan processor Carlene Lewis: “When I was getting frustrated she was always there to lift my spirits up and keep me going. She just really reassured me I would have a house. Without her I don’t know if I’d have hung in there this long.” The support Gesu provided also impressed her. “Once Brother Wilmot knew I was serious about wanting the corner lot, he told me, ‘Well, that’s your lot — just hang in there.’ He was great, too.”
Buyers like Powell receive a $60,000 subsidy loan that comes off the cost of the home, keeping fixed monthly payments at about $600.
Money from HUD and buyers doesn’t cover everything. For each home Gesu builds, Wilmot must raise $40,000 to cover the difference. Asking for money isn’t his favorite chore, but it is vital it Gesu is to continue its work.
“We couldn’t survive without it. It’s hard work but it’s very interesting and you meet a lot of really good people,” he says. “Many things in this country are completed because of fund raising — like education. There’s a gap between what it costs and what people pay for it, so you’ve got to raise the gap, and the same here ….”
He recently secured $250,000 in matching grant money to allow Gesu to finish its most recent crop of homes.
To find those stop-gap dollars and keep construction costs low, Wilmot enlists support from of his extended Prep family. For example, Dan Hall of Hallmarq Homes, the general contractor for Gesu projects, played ball for Wilmot at Prep. After one meeting with his old coach, Hall says, “I bought in. It’s a great thing we’re doing down here — we’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time. I love doing it.”
Replacing vacant lots with new homes encourages existing homeowners to spruce up their own places. “There are other houses on this block since we started doing this that have been rehabbed, which is a good idea. Other people are fixing up their houses,” Wilmot says.
Hall says residents get involved in the revitalization, even going out of their way to protect new construction sites. “Everybody seems to know me and my truck now because I’ve been down here hundreds of times,” he says. “And there are some folks that watch houses for me. It goes a long way, you know, in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it when you get people involved. If somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me.”
Whether it’s their place or someone else’s, he says, people “just want a nice house.” And a nice neighborhood.
Wilmot formed Gesu nearly a decade ago after working on a series of construction projects. They included additions to the then-Jesuit Middle School, now Jesuit Academy, at 2311 North 22nd Street, and to the Mulumba House at 4308 Grant. He was the school’s first assistant principal. But when he got involved building things using a fast, cost effective poured concrete process, he found inspiration for his new path.
“I worked closely with a friend of mine who’s another Prep alum, Phil McKeone of Daedalus Construction, and I said, ‘Phil, we’ve got to do something with this technology to build some houses, and he was dumb enough to go for it.”
Sister Marilyn Ross, director of Holy Name Housing Corp., urged him to start the home construction nonprofit. He did, and focused on the neighborhood where he lives. Gesu relies on donated and discounted labor and in-kind services.
Much of north central and northeast Omaha have a glut of vacant lots, condemned homes and unkempt rental properties that deflate property values of the area’s nice homes and solid neighborhoods. He says he once counted at least 25 vacant lots in the Clifton Hills section. With for-profit developers ignoring the district, nonprofits like Gesu and Holy Name fill the void for new home construction.
“I do know there’s not necessarily a lot of people breaking their necks to build houses down here,” says Wilmot. “I’m sure economics comes into it. All over this country I think we have to rebuild our cities from the inside out. We can’t just keep going out to 200th and plowing ground. There’s gotta be renewal and rebuilding.”
The inner city provides an attractive landscape for first-time home buyers with its affordable housing and proximity to Omaha’s cultural hub, parks and commercial corridors. He views the racially-ethnically diverse Clifton Hills community as a kind of test case for what urban living should be.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t want to move out to west Omaha,” he says. “They want to live close to downtown. There’s a lot of good neighborhoods here. We’re not just helping people get into houses but improving neighborhoods. It’s about people living together. The best neighborhoods are diverse — economically, culturally, ethnically. It’s whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians living together.”
Gesu uses lots where homes previously stood, filling vacant properties with single-family homes.
“We work with the city very closely,” says Wilmot. “They identify lots and they do some of the site work and stuff like that and then they give it to us.”
The land Gesu uses isn’t always ideal. Some lots are rough and hilly; others choked by overgrowth and refuse. He points to a lot just west of a newly completed Gesu house and says, “There was a house here that was torn down and instead of throwing the debris away they threw it in a hole and covered it up. Now we have to get rid of that junk and take down a lot of this overgrowth.”
“We have to deal with the land the way we get it, and it costs money to do all the cleanup and hauling.” And headaches come with construction. “It rains when you don’t want it to rain, it doesn’t rain when you want it to rain, all that stuff,” he says. “You’re at the mercy of the weather.”
Eventually, the hassles are worth it.
“When you get done closing that house and you tell someone like Eva (Powell), ‘Congratulations, you’re a homeowner,’ that’s a real key time, and a joyous time.”
With more resources, Gesu could expand its reach. “Right now this is the area we’re working in but we’re not locked in here,” he says. “But we are locked into north Omaha.”
Wilmot is by all accounts a mellower man than the owly disciplinarian who patrolled the sidelines and hallways at Prep, and who continues coaching part-time at Omaha Roncalli.
“Coaching is teaching,” he says.
He doesn’t do as much hands-on construction work as he did at the start, but he’s still every bit as committed to Gesu’ social justice mission.
“Everybody should have a decent place to live, but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Visit www.gesuhousing.com or call 402-991-0138
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com