Bikers build support for affordable housing across America

As they make their way across America on bicycles while talking to folks about the importance of affordable housing, three women from Bike & Build enjoy a rare evening resting on a real bed instead of a sleeping bag on a church floor. Pictured left to right are Casey Wesh and Bri Yablonski, both from Pennsylvania, and Kerry Aszklar from Maryland. The group was hosted by families from the Avon Lake United Church of Christ. This group stayed at the home of Barbara and Jim Caldwell on Bay Hill Drive. (Press photo by Michele Murphy)


AVON LAKE – Many 20-somethings are immersed in building a career or a family. However, 32 of them recently passed through the area and they want to build something for somebody else. Actually, they did not just pass through the area, they pedaled through it.

The group are part of the national nonprofit called Bike & Build, whose mission is to increase awareness and support for affordable housing. Bike & Build was founded in New York City in 2002 by Marc Bush who, after leading a cross country trip with the (now discontinued) Yale Habitat Bicycle Challenge in 2001, was inspired to expand and improve their model.  Since its foundation, Bike & Build’s numerous cross-country trips have engaged 3,000 young adults in service. Each summer, they now pedal over 1 million cumulative miles raising awareness for the cause. This past holiday weekend, a group of Bike & Build participants found themselves overnighting in Avon Lake as guests of families from the local United Church of Christ (UCC).

Among the group, five young women were shepherded to the comfy surroundings of two homes on Bay Hill. Dr. Bri Yablonski, 24, is from Bloomsbury, PA. Her roommates for the evening were Kerry Aszklar, 25, Annapolis, MD, and Casey Wesh, 24, Lancaster, PA. They were hosted by Barbara and Jim Caldwell. Just down the street, Ellie Murray sat on her patio with Colleen Herlihy, 25, of New York, N.Y., and Angelica Kechukyan, 24, of Los Angeles, CA.

The five admitted they were excited to sleep in “real beds” as they often spend the night in sleeping bags on the floors of churches or schools as they make their way from Portsmouth, N.Y. to Bellingham, WA. The trip began in mid-June and ends Sept. 1.

As they enjoyed a relaxing evening, they were able to take leisurely showers and make use of washers and dryers at their hosts’ homes. The 32 cyclists have an additional four experienced cross country riders with them, as well as two support trucks to help in the case of a flat tire or other problem while the group travels.

The group is passionate about the affordable housing problem in the U.S. and its implications. Kerry stressed that she worried about her peers just starting out in their careers, loaded down with college debt, and unable to save enough for a down payment for a house particularly in “hot” housing markets. In those same markets, rents are equally exorbitant, making the dream of homeownership even more fleeting.

She believes, and her bike mates agree, that there are fairly widespread misconception about what affordable housing is – which is why she has made the point that it affects middle class families as well as the poor.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Colleen Herlihy, who lived in subsidized housing in New York City. It is her hometown and one of America’s least affordable housing markets. She says that both of her parents were school teachers and, despite that, the family still qualified for federally-subsidized housing vouchers.

The young women believe the affordable housing issue is hidden, because as Kerry explained, “No one wants to be homeless.” As a result, they will forego food and medicine in order to cover the costs of rent or a mortgage.

They went on to explain that advocates for affordable housing must also fight the stigma of “not in my neighborhood,” because some fear subsidized housing could increase crime or bring down housing values. They dispute this.

As they make their way across the country, they stop each evening to share a meal with a host community like Avon Lake’s UCC. They tell stories about what they have learned about affordable housing, as well as their own stories. After all, what young professional walks away from a life as a financial analyst or grant researcher to join Bike & Build?

Another interesting aspect of their story is that only one of the five had ever ridden a bike any long distance. They went through extensive training – which they had to pass – before being allowed to join the cross country trek. They also had to raise nearly $5,000 to support their venture and affordable housing projects.

Along the way, they stop to work at Habitat for Humanity projects. They stress that the homeowners who get a helping hand from Habitat are actively engaged in their respective projects. Bri told about helping an elderly man in Vermont who needed a roof. “We put the whole roof (it was metal) on in a day,” she related. “It felt like such a strong sense of community. We were in this together.” She explains that while they worked, he made and provided their lunch.

Colleen, who is from an educated, middle class family, believes her experience living in subsidized housing demonstrates that affordable housing is a significant middle class issue. “Many people have the wrong idea about what affordable housing is,” she says, then continues, “Housing costs are imbalanced compared to people’s incomes.

When people are in their own homes, the community is more stable,” she concludes.

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