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Biking Cross-Country for Affordable Housing

October 21, 2016

Written by: Katie Swanson

Katie Swanson, an Indianapolis native, recently completed a 4,000 mile cross-country bicycling trip with Bike & Build to raise money and awareness for affordable housing. Katie shares her insights about working with housing organizations throughout the country and how she’s using her experience to give back to Indianapolis.

Bike & Build is an incredible non-profit organization that organizes service-oriented cycling trips benefiting affordable housing and empowers young adults for a lifetime of service and civic engagement.

Bike & Build offers 8 cross-country routes and 2 regional routes each summer. The trips consist of ride days (on the bike), build days (off the bike, volunteering with housing organizations), and a few days off for resting. I participated on the Southern U.S. route. As the name implies, this is the southernmost route—it begins in Jacksonville, FL and meanders throughout the south and southwest before ending in Monterey, CA.

Before the Trip
There was a lot of preparation to complete before I began my journey. Each rider was required to fundraise at least $4,500 for the affordable housing cause, complete a safety course, and log at least 500 training miles. In addition, I completed affordable housing curriculum to become better educated on our nation’s housing crisis. I had weekly discussions with riders from my trip discussing topics such as gentrification, Section 8, the housing first model, redlining, income inequality, and more. I was also required to volunteer at least 10 hours with an affordable housing organization, and complete interviews with affordable housing organizations and beneficiaries. The trip pre-work, and specifically the affordable housing curriculum, really helped me become a more confident advocate of the cause and get pumped up about the summer ahead.

I flew to Jacksonville in May and met my fellow riders, 29 young adults from all over the country. We had a few days of orientation, our first build day volunteering in Jacksonville, and then we were ready to hit the road.

And We’re Off...Headed West!
Each morning, our nomadic crew woke up before the sun and prepared for the day ahead—packing our support trailer, cleaning up our host site, bike maintenance, a route meeting, and of course, breakfast. We averaged about 75 miles per day on our bikes with frequent stops to admire the views, check out a roadside attraction, or talk to curious locals. We stayed in churches, community centers, or campgrounds and gave presentations to the locals about our mission whenever possible.

Although the majority of our days were spent biking, we took a break from riding along the way to volunteer with affordable housing organizations. We spent a total of 13 days volunteering (with 9 different organizations) over the course of our trip.

The 30 of us tackled a variety of projects with these organizations—everything from framing and drywall to painting and landscaping. In Tallahassee, FL, we spent hours laying down sod for a home in the final stages of construction. In Dallas, TX, we worked on housing rehab projects for elderly residents. In Santa Fe, NM, I helped construct a traditional adobe wall (a signature of Santa Fe architecture) using earth bricks and mud for a home while other team members worked on framing. Each build site was a little different, but we showed up ready to lend a hand with whatever project needed attention.

I was able to meet several homeowners and beneficiaries of affordable housing on the trip, and it was very powerful to hear their stories about how their lives had changed for the better. Knowing that we were helping families across the country have access to a safe, stable home made all of the tough days pedaling through intense heat or up mountain passes worthwhile.

One big takeaway I had from speaking with people throughout the trip was the confirmation that a lack ofaffordable, adequate housing is burdening our entire nation. According to a 2016 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in no state can a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage afford a one-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent. It’s unbelievable. And while virtually every community doesn’t have enough affordable housing to meet the demand, housing issues take on slightly different forms from city to city. For example, New Orleans faces particularly unique housing challenges because of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. While we were there, we helped paint homes in the Ninth Ward and heard firsthand accounts of contractor fraud and red tape that is resulting in a massive amount homes left abandoned or still unlivable—even though it’s been more than 10 years since Katrina. While we encountered vastly different communities on our route, every town we rode through could relate to our mission in some shape or form.

Bike & Build also has a competitive grant program, and we worked as a group to review grant applications and decide on the allocation of the money we had fundraised. It was fascinating to read grant applications from across the country, and very rewarding to have a say in which projects our group would fund in order to best extend our impact.

After the Trip
As part of my participation with Bike & Build, I am also able to grant $1,000 to an affordable housing organization of my choice—and I’m proud to designate this funding to Partners In Housing. PIH is doing amazing things for Indianapolis residents who are in the greatest need of housing assistance. PIH was instrumental in helping me learn more about affordable housing initiatives in my own hometown before I left on my trip. I’m grateful for the work they do and their willingness to help others better understand the affordable housing climate in Indy.

All in all, I had the most incredible summer of my life. I met amazing people and biked through some of the most beautiful landscapes our country has to offer. I got to meet soon-to-be homeowners who were gracious enough to share their stories, and worked alongside some wonderful organizations. America’s housing crisis is everywhere—it permeates big cities and small towns, and affects people from all walks of life. But knowing there are passionate advocates of affordable housing and organizations like PIH working on the front lines of this issue gives me hope for the future.

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