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Habitat Hotel Takes on Lexington’s Housing and Hotel Shortage A philanthropic twist on AirBnB, W&L's Habitat Hotel raises thousands for much-needed affordable housing in Rockbridge.

W&L students work on a Habitat for Humanity build.

“One of the things I’ve learned about [in my classes] and that my mom has really stressed to me, is the negative effects and downward spiral caused by not having a home. It’s a mental impediment; it effects your self-esteem. It’s also been tied to other social problems, such as drug abuse and domestic violence.”

~ Turner Banwell ’19

A number of charming inns, bed and breakfasts, as well as a smattering of the standard corporate hotel fare open their doors to Lexington’s 40,000 plus tourists each year. But with the arrival of fall – and with it, W&L’s Parents and Family weekend (Sept. 28 and 29 this year)– the No Vacancy signs begin to light up. Nearly 400 parents and relatives overtake Lexington and the Washington and Lee campus to show support of students, and those who don’t get a room early risk being left out in the cold.

For those who wish to call Lexington “home,” there is also a serious shortage of affordable housing. Much of the town is absorbed by the campuses of its two major universities (W&L and Virginia Military Institute), leaving little room for the development of new housing. The Roanoke Times reported in May that the medium home value of Lexington was estimated at $230,500, far more expensive than the $112,400 figure for nearby Buena Vista or $193,300 for surrounding Rockbridge County.

Which is why the student-led Habitat Hotel is a win-win: since 2006, the hotel — think of it as AirBnB with a philanthropic twist — provides lodging options for the hundreds of visitors who descend upon lodging-crunched Lexington for Parents Weekend. The initiative also raises tens of thousands of dollars annually for Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity, which in turn uses those funds to build much-needed affordable housing for area families.

How it works: During Parents and Family Weekend, between 40 to 50 faculty, staff and local residents open rooms in their homes to visitors in exchange for donations to the Rockbridge Habitat Chapter. In 2016, the W&L Chapter of Habitat, the folks behind Habitat Hotel, raised over $23,000. This year, the chapter is working to surpass that. One-hundred percent of proceeds fund Rockbridge Area Habitat projects. The Habitat Hotel program is so popular (and lodging in Lexington is in such short supply) that Habitat Hotel sells out every year.

W&L students on a Habitat build.

“W&L is only the second campus in the nation, that I am aware of, to host Habitat Hotel,” said Lynn Harris, director of development and marketing for Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity.

Turner Banwell ’19, an economics and politics double major from Charlotte, North Carolina, is co-president of the W&L Habitat for Humanity chapter, along with Julian Hennig ’19, a business administration major from Columbia, South Carolina. Banwell has been has been heavily involved with community service since high school and joined the W&L Habitat fundraising board his sophomore year. Over the past calendar year, Banwell has participated in more than 100 hours of community service, with the majority of it dedicated to Habitat. “One of the things I’ve learned about [in my classes] and that my mom has really stressed to me, is the negative effects and downward spiral caused by not having a home,” said Turner. “It’s a mental impediment; it effects your self-esteem. It’s also been tied to other social problems, such as drug abuse and domestic violence.”

During high school, Hennig’s favorite Habitat experience involved repairing an elderly woman’s porch in rural Columbia. “The wooden paneling surrounding the screen porch was almost completely rotten and unusable, so our job was to remove and replace the rotten wood and torn areas of screen around the porch. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the excitement on the face of the elderly woman as she was finally able to use her front porch once again.” This experience, among others, inspired Hennig to join W&L’s Habitat chapter.

“I have seen first-hand the immense benefits that W&L’s Habitat for Humanity has had in the Lexington/Rockbridge community,” he added.

Another upside to the Habitat Hotel project is that for over a decade, the project has helped spark connections between far-flung members of the W&L community, connections which frequently evolve into lasting friendships. “We have a number of people who request to be with the same host as last year,” said Harris.  “Long after their kids graduate, they stay in contact with the host. A number of  wonderful relationships develop.”

Registration for Habit Hotel typically opens in late May on the W&L website. There are a few rooms left for Parents Weekend Sept. 28 and 29, 2018; there is also a need for additional hosts. Contact Lynn Harris at Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity at lynn.harris@rockbridgehabitat.org or jhcalhoun73@gmail.com or learn more here.

Greenhouse Village, a residential affordable housing development created by Rockbridge County and Habitat for Humanity located near Lexington.