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A helping hand for hard times -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A helping hand for hard times

New funding opportunities expand Habitat’s capacity for rehab and renovation
By Rebekah Daniel

 


Before

   
 


After

   


When Laquita Green was accepted as a prospective homeowner with Habitat for Humanity of Lake-Sumter, Fla., she followed a path of sweat equity and homeownership classes marked out by more than 170 homeowners before her. And like many of those who had come before, she found the “small” things about homeownership particularly meaningful — things like a paint color she likes on the walls, a driveway for her children to ride their bikes, ceiling fans to help cut the bills and more time in the week without having to go to the Laundromat.

For all the small things she likes about homeownership, however, Laquita also recognizes that her homeownership break came about because of something big. Her local Habitat group is one of several across the United States that has partnered with municipalities and other social service agencies to take advantage of a federal funding opportunity.

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program was established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help communities experiencing high rates of foreclosure and abandonment. NSP1 refers to funds granted to all states and certain local governments; NSP2 refers to funds granted to states, local governments and nonprofit organizations on a competitive basis. The NSP funding, which was authorized by legislation in 2008 and 2009, coincided with the establishment of an initiative within Habitat to organize and support an uptick in creative responses to community needs already in progress. The Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative seeks to support local affiliates as they broaden the range of housing solutions they offer and draw diverse partners into the mission.

A few of the core components of the initiative include:

  • The Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP1 and NSP2).
  • Weatherization programs. Increasing energy efficiency helps local residents reduce their monthly bills and better withstand tight economic times.
  • A Brush with Kindness. This service preserves decent and affordable housing by mobilizing volunteers to help low-income homeowners with exterior repair and renovation projects.
  • Purchase and rehabilitation of foreclosed properties.
  • National Service. AmeriCorps National Direct and AmeriCorps VISTA members have helped build more than 10,000 houses since 1994 by building houses, leading volunteers, writing grants, developing programs and other activities.
  • Habitat for Humanity ReStore outlets. Operated by local Habitat affiliates across the United States and Canada, Habitat ReStores promote recycling and affordable home improvement while raising funds for construction.
  • Partnering with other nonprofits, government and for-profit organizations to build neighborhoods in which residents have a higher quality of life.

“The idea of responding to a community’s needs with a wider variety of housing products and increased partnerships has its origins at many affiliates across the U.S.,” says Jeff Pope, Habitat’s senior director of neighborhood revitalization. “The Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative is lending momentum to Habitat’s efforts to have a larger and more powerful impact in solving the issue of poverty housing.”

The Habitat group in Lake-Sumter, Fla., partnered with the Lake County government to purchase and rehabilitate up to 12 foreclosed houses with NSP1 funds. Green had already been approved by Habitat and was busy earning sweat equity on construction projects and taking homeownership classes when she learned she could speed up the process by agreeing to purchase one of these houses. The house had been built in 2007, and only minor repairs were needed. A few months later, Green was home.

“It’s something I had prayed for, especially for the kids,” she says. “To have a backyard to play in where I don’t have to worry about other kids hitting them or picking on them. … It’s a blessing.”

Though Green’s house was in relatively good condition, the time spent helping to build other homeowners’ houses was a good investment, she says: “That was a great experience, to learn different aspects about building a house. It makes you more appreciative of what you’re getting when you have to go out and do that process of helping someone else. You do have to work for it.”

Mastering new skills

Habitat in Monroe County, Mich., began learning the ins and outs of partnering with various municipalities and taking on rehabs for the first time this spring. The affiliate applied jointly with the city government, county government and another nonprofit organization for NSP1 funds through Habitat’s state support organization in Michigan.

The decision to learn about rehabbing houses came as the implications of the housing crash began to hit home, before NSP funds were available.

“I’ve been with Habitat for 10 years,” executive director Debbie Wykes says. “The first years we could get lots for $1 from the city. Then we couldn’t get a lot to save our lives. The housing was going straight up, and then it crashed just as fast.”

A solution was to begin rehabilitating houses instead of building from scratch. The affiliate purchased a HUD-owned house through the county for $1 and started learning through doing.

“We were used to building in a blitz format—we put up four homes in 10 days,” Wykes says. “We’re a county where people like to do this for their entertainment. And it’s a whole different thing than the day-in, day-out slogging through a rehab. So we opened up weekdays for volunteers. … The volunteers had to develop new skills—how to tile a bathroom, how to sand hardwood floors.”

But as volunteers have begun learning new things about housing, new partners have begun learning more about Habitat, too. Unlike other social service agencies, Habitat does not have clients. Rather, Habitat families are true partners managing important resources: mortgages. Habitat also brings donor dollars to the table to leverage the NSP funds for even greater impact, Wykes says.

The funding has created ripples beyond the individual houses into the broader economic community touched by the housing industry. The contractors employed by Habitat in Monroe for certain construction tasks are happy for the work, for example, and staff members have noticed unemployed supporters increasing their time on the construction site to learn new skills.

All the factors currently in play—empty houses available for renovation, willing partners, scores of families still struggling to afford decent housing—have combined to make rehabbing houses a prominent part of the affiliate’s strategy for fulfilling its mission in the current conditions. The future remains to be seen.

“It really depends on if house prices stay where we can afford them,” Wyes says. “In our community right now, we have extra homes on the market. It does not make economic or even moral sense to build new homes when there are empty homes on the market.

“In Michigan, the economic situation isn’t going to change as fast as some other areas. What is coming next? I don’t know. But the skills we’re learning in rehab are real and for us.”

Building capacity

Habitat affiliates desiring to access NSP1 funds had to do so by partnering with a state or municipal government, but the NSP2 funds were made available to nonprofit organizations on a competitive basis. Habitat for Humanity International applied for funding on behalf of several local Habitat affiliates and received more than $137 million to use in seven targeted areas across five states. Each of the seven locations has a slightly different housing “product”—some are rehabbing urban housing, some are building new houses and one is offering financial assistance in the form of soft second mortgages to increase affordability.

Greater Miami (Fla.) Habitat received $9.3 million to purchase vacant land and foreclosed and abandoned properties in the Liberty City community. This historically African-American neighborhood was named for a public housing project constructed in the 1930s and was, at one time, a healthy community of businesses and mostly middle-class families. Since the infamous Liberty City race riots of 1979, however, it has been known also for poverty, drugs and violence.

Habitat’s work in Liberty City began in 1991 with the Jimmy Carter Work Project. In recent years, the affiliate has built dozens of houses there and received hundreds of scattered lots donated by Miami-Dade County. Combined with the properties purchased with NSP funds, Miami Habitat is in a position to lead a three-year revitalization project involving partners throughout the area called “Liberty City Shine.”

Miami Habitat has adopted Jeremiah 29:7 as a theme for the project: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” It is a fitting instruction for a neighborhood that is in many ways an island in the midst of greater Miami, church relations officer McKenzie Moore says: “It’s the most underserved and impoverished part of the county. A lot of the lots where we’re building all these new homes over the next several years have been vacant for an average of 40 years now; even before the riots there was no investment in the community. We’re asking residents and churches in the community to seek the peace and prosperity of the community.”

In Dallas, NSP2 funds are helping to significantly advance a $100-million, five-year campaign called Dream Dallas. Five distinct neighborhoods in the metro area have been targeted to receive intensive investment by Habitat as well as other organizations.

“The goal is to transform these neighborhoods not just with the building of new homes and the placement of families but with partnerships with other nonprofits to bring in complementary and necessary social services to help people transform their lives,” says Jeff Kramer, senior director of development and marketing at Dallas Habitat. “We’re building the house as an anchor for families to build a new life.”

All the money Dallas Habitat raises, beginning in January 2010 and including a NSP award of some $29 million, will further the Dream Dallas initiative. It’s a big project to advance a big vision.

“We knew that to truly help people change their lives, a home was just one piece of the puzzle,” Kramer says. “If we don’t look at how to help a family beyond the walls of a home, then the impact of a home is limited. It’s limitless when partnered with other agencies. We want to change the face of the city of Dallas forever.”

Changing lives

A warm spring morning in May found homeowner Heather Harrison finishing up the landscaping on her Habitat house in Monroe County, Mich. Her rehabbed house—complete with white siding, a new roof and fenced backyard—is a dream come true, she says. Hers is a history common to many Habitat homeowners: doubling up with family members, struggling to stay warm in the winter, fleeing mold and other problems.

When she applied for a Habitat house, it was a bit of a shot in the dark—“I thought, ‘What’s the worst they could tell me? No?’”—and the excitement that sprouted when she was approved has matured into a deep satisfaction. As she paused briefly from digging in the dirt—her dirt—the smile in her voice was almost visible.

“I love being home.