ORLAND, Maine — Since Jennifer Jacques’ daughter, Asha, was born 13 years ago, the two have lived in 18 different homes. The small family, which now includes Jacques’ second daughter, Aria, 5, have moved from Seattle to Old Orchard Beach, Jacques’ hometown, to Lewiston, to Portland, to the Blue Hill peninsula and finally to Bucksport, where they’re currently staying.
“We’ve been this transient family,” said Jacques. And they’ve had enough.
About three months ago, Jacques acquired two acres of land here that included an abandoned 660-square-foot garage. Her car is falling apart, she has very little savings and she’s sitting deep in student loans. But, inspired by the small, durable houses built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she’s decided to enlist the support of her community and turn the garage into a home — an endeavour she’s calling The Itty Bitty House Project.
“Ambitious,” thought friend and co-worker Heather Mathews when she heard the plan. “But I was pretty sure she could pull it off.”
As a waitress at an upscale restaurant and a housekeeper at a hotel, both in Blue Hill, Jacques earns $21,000 a year. That’s about $4,000 more than the federal poverty level, but it’s in the range that is considered “poor” in Maine, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Maine State Planning Office. The study says that one in three Mainers are “poor” or “near-poor,” which means that a third of the state struggles to pay for basic necessities such as food, shelter and heat.
When she and her children got to this area just over three years ago, they felt like they’d found home. Jacques liked the feeling of community she found at the Blue Hill Congregational Church and in a local singing group, and Asha loved being near ponds and woods to explore. For the past year they’ve house-sat a place in Bucksport that a friend recently inherited, but Jacques said they were ready to settle somewhere permanent.
Jacques earns too much to qualify for government subsidized housing. She looked into low-income housing in the area, which she would qualify for, but that option did not seem to offer the quality of life she was hoping for.
“One of my concerns was security,” she said.
So she’s getting creative.
She put up flyers, posted an ad on Craig’s List, created a Facebook page and, with help from a friend, a website, all to get out her message — that she’s in the market for donated materials, labor and carpentry expertise.
“I know I can’t do this on my own. I know people have materials just laying around,” she said. “I will come take that off your hands.”
And people have responded. So far she has been given lumber, insulation, house-wrap, a sink and seriously reduced rates on windows and a sliding door. She’s been offered roofing shingles that are in Stonington and a stove pipe that’s in Saco, which she hasn’t been able to collect yet.
She’s also hosting work parties. Last weekend, 18 adults came by at different times to help the Jacqueses work on their house. Asha watched over a gang of kids, while the grown-ups ripped off the old clapboards, added a new window and nailed insulation to the floor and walls.
Some of the helpers are Jacques’ good friends, but others are people she’s only acquainted with who heard about her cause and liked the idea.
“My parents were back-to-the-landers on the Blue Hill peninsula and they always had work parties,” said Kristina Beal. “This brings me back to my childhood.”
Tobyn Oxman, who moved to Surry with her family about a year ago, was at the event because she was drawn to the feeling of community.
“We’ve never been a part of something like this before and it’s an incredible feeling to feel like you’re really surrounded by a group of supportive people,” she said.
Jacques’ main help has been her father, Mark, a clerk at the Biddeford post office. He comes up at least once a week and has taken on the role of contractor. His brothers and father were carpenters and he’s picked up some of the trade from them.
Jacques hopes that in the end, she will have an efficient, comfortable home, even if it is itty bitty. She’s rushing to make it liveable before the winter comes, when the cost of heating the big, old house she’s staying in will hurt her finances. Her new property came with a septic system and a well, but she will need to get plumbing and electricity installed.
The story of how the Jacqueses acquired the land is just as unlikely and heartening as their plans to make it liveable.
After Jacques moved to the Blue Hill peninsula area in 2010, she and her daughters found Craig Pond in Orland. Asha loved exploring the pond and the family returned often. Nearby was the two-acre lot with one sign that said “for sale” and another that said “keep out.”
The property cost $39,000. Jacques knew she couldn’t get a mortgage because of her debt so she asked the realtor if the owner would be willing to finance.
“He would consider it,” was the response, according to Jacques.
For a year Jacques and the owner, who did not want to be identified for this story, communicated through emails and phone calls. She provided him with her tax information, phone numbers for her parents so they could speak to her character, and a 23-page proposal explaining her plans for the property and how she intended to get the work done.
For months she worried if the energy and hope she’d put into the idea had been worth it.
“I was thinking about what to do next,” she recalled.
Then, in July, the owner called and offered to give her the land for free with one caveat: In two years, if she did not make the home habitable and occupy it, she would owe him $10,000. If she did, he would forget about it.
While there is still considerable work to be done, she hopes to have the plumbing and wiring installed and inspected so she can move in before it gets too cold this winter.
The generosity she’s been shown is overwhelming for Jacques.
“We’ve been really struggling with how you thank someone,” she said. “I think the way you do it is just by doing what you say you’re going to do.”
Jacques hopes that once her house is finished she can help others do the same thing. For example, she doesn’t need the roofing she’s been offered, but she knows someone who does. She hopes to help facilitate connections between materials or services and those who need them.
“Him investing in me is going to have ripple effects,” she said of her benefactor.
To get involved or for more information, go to the Itty Bitty House Project website.