Man on a Mission
By Laura Samuel Meyn
Photos courtesy of Trinity Habitat for Humanity
Land is expensive. Donations are down. Fewer volunteers are able to help due to COVID. In spite of this triple whammy, Gage Yager continues to navigate Trinity Habitat for Humanity through rough waters, because a house is more than a home for those in need.
Some 25 years ago, Gage Yager had an epiphany at the desk of a job he didn’t love.
He was working at his father’s Fort Worth real estate company, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I was trying to think about what I would do if I didn’t do real estate, and it was like a bolt of lightning hit me that I wanted to work for a nonprofit,” he says. He wasn’t certain that his real estate skills would be in demand at such a job, but, while flipping through a United Way booklet, he found Atlanta-based Habitat for Humanity, an international Christian ministry that partners with families to build affordable homes.
Yager sent a letter to the director of Trinity Habitat for Humanity, the local affiliate, and was invited to join the organization’s real estate committee. A few months later, he was offered a job — at a humble salary — running Habitat’s local ReStore. As the retail arm of Habitat, ReStore diverts building materials from the landfill, selling both new and used goods to the public; proceeds are funneled back to the cause. After a series of promotions, today he’s CEO of Trinity Habitat, which builds houses for dozens of deserving local families each year, helping them to achieve their dreams of home ownership. “I’ve made a couple good decisions in my life — my wife and Habitat. It’s been a huge blessing for me,” Yager says.
While Trinity Habitat for Humanity builds in four counties — Tarrant, Parker, Johnson and Wise — some 91 of the 800 homes it has erected in its 30-year history are in Como, a historically Black neighborhood in Fort Worth. Yager has lived in Arlington Heights for 30 years; there, he and his wife raised two daughters. The couple keep a garden; his wife tends their chickens and Yager has the family dogs to keep him company on his hunting and fly-fishing outings. The neighborhood also is home to his favorite Mexican restaurant, The Original.
While affordable, Habitat houses aren’t easy to come by. After an intensive application process, families are selected based on need, their willingness to
work as partners (250 sweat equity hours and homebuyer education classes are required), and their ability to pay (low-cost mortgages are issued on the properties).
Finding affordable land has become increasingly difficult for Habitat, and the pandemic has dealt additional blows. In 2020, donations were down 25 percent — some $800,000 less than usual. A 75 percent reduction in volunteers meant that Habitat had to pay subcontractors $100,000 to do the job. Seventeen homes on the schedule had to be delayed. In spite of all the challenges, Habitat still managed to help 40 families build new homes last year. And with the pandemic prompting so many home improvement projects, ReStore had its best year yet.
“COVID has pointed out a lot of things to us, both good and bad,” says Yager. “One thing it highlighted is the importance of a quality home — we’re told to work from home, stay at home, shelter at home — it’s foundational.”
New Habitat homeowner Khadijah Campbell knows that all too well. Her former rental was plagued with leaks and mold and wasn’t a healthy environment for the mother and her four children, especially when the kids had to stay home from school. Now the family is thriving in a home that’s secure, healthy and all theirs. With an affordable mortgage in place, she’ll have no rent increases to contend with. Soon-to-be Habitat homeowner Audra Sapp told Yager that she prayed that something good would happen for her in Como before her application was approved, and then it did. Her house is scheduled for completion early this year; she tells Yager that having her own home will mean the end of existing in “crisis mode” — and the end of sharing a bedroom with her children.
While the families are naturally excited for their new homes, volunteers at the construction sites share in that happiness, too; an atmosphere of team spirit pervades their work as they come together for a common cause. “It’s nearly impossible for that to not feel really good,” Yager says. “The Lord’s directive is to love him and our neighbor; not surprisingly, it works.”
Yager’s current job duties mean that he only gets a couple days a year to work on Habitat’s construction sites, but he, his wife, and their two young adult daughters had the opportunity to travel to Kenya in 2019 for a Habitat global village trip. There, they befriended a single mother, Lucy, who shared a small mud hut with her two children and her mother. The team worked to build the family a new brick house; the life-changing experience left the Yagers feeling overwhelmed with gratitude.
In spite of current challenges, Yager is optimistic about the future. On the personal front, he hopes to someday compete in the Swim for Alligator Lighthouse; the 8-mile course in the Florida Keys would be a “monster challenge” but also a thrill for the avid outdoorsman.
This year, Trinity Habitat is moving forward with some innovative plans. The organization owns a 3-acre tract in Mansfield where it will build its first town-house community. Under review is the possible purchase of 34 acres off Cherry Lane, where Trinity Habitat could create a neighborhood of single-family homes, town houses and cottages for seniors, too.
“I get to work with Habitat families hoping to achieve the American dream; their optimism buoys me. But I also work with individuals and companies, some of fantastic wealth, and get to see their desire to help, their servant hearts,” says Yager. “It’s a Christian ministry, and that speaks to my heart in a big and powerful way; whatever little good I’ve done for Habitat, they’ve done better for me.”