It was one of life's ironies: the neighborhood called Optimist Park had little about which to be hopeful. A once-flourishing community in Charlotte, N.C., it had deteriorated so badly that a full 90 percent of the homes were in need of rehabilitation. Violence and crime were rampant. If anyone needed an example of urban decay in 1981, Optimist Park was it. But change was afoot.
Across town, in the affluent, genteel Myers Park neighborhood, pastors and lay people from several churches banded together, calling themselves the Jeremiah group in reference to the verse in the Bibles book of Jeremiah: Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.
Together, the groups vision created a catalyst for change in Optimist Park. In September 1983, the newly chartered Habitat for Humanity Charlotte affiliate broke ground on its first house in that deteriorating community.
From the beginning, it was an affiliate that seemed to thrive on the impossible. In the summer of 1987, HFH Charlotte hosted former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, along with more than 200 volunteers in a blitz build of 14 houses in Optimist Park. It was the first time the Jimmy Carter Work Project volunteers had attempted to build homes from start to finish in a week. JCWP was the catalyst, the point at which everything was different, says Bert Green, executive director of HFH Charlotte. It galvanized the public; it was absolutely wonderful. It not only changed things for Habitat here in Charlotte but, because of the great publicity we got, affiliates sprung up around here like weeds."
There have been many "firsts" for the Charlotte affiliate, including becoming the first U.S. affiliate to build 100 houses, building the first house built in 24 hours, building with the first all-youth and all-women crews, and completing the first house sponsored and built by Habitat homeowners.
In 2001, the affiliate achieved another milestone by reaching the $1 million mark in its tithe to Habitat for Humanity International. Through its tithe, HFH Charlotte first sponsored houses in India and Peru, and later partnered with El Salvador.
"We've sent five Global Village work teams there, and they've visited us here," says Beth Van Gorp, volunteer coordinator.
"From the beginning, this board has not only worked to help start other affiliates in our immediate area out of our own budget, but also taken seriously our commitment to Habitat's ministry around the world," Green says.
"It's easily 500 houses in the areas we've designated for funding. I'm really proud of that.
He is equally proud of the affiliate's relationship with the city, tremendous local volunteer base, commitment to helping other affiliates and active board of directors.
The board president is Patrick Mumford, senior vice president of the corporate real estate group at First Union's headquarters in Charlotte. As the affiliate looks ahead to building its 500th house by the end of 2001 and its 20th anniversary in 2003, Mumford says he sees both unique challenges and incredible opportunity. Like many cities, Charlotte is undergoing revitalization, and the close-to-downtown neighborhoods where Habitat has built are now considered prime real estate. That has impacted the availability of affordable lots.
On the same front, an affordable housing effort is under way in the city. The city council expects to approve a $40 million bond issue next year, and the affiliate anticipates that investors will buy up land on speculation.
Another critical issue facing the affiliate is maintaining the enthusiasm of the volunteers and sponsors.
Habitat has kind of lost its luster; we are not new anymore, Mumford says. The paper won't cover us if we do a blitz. Fifteen houses in a week is not a big deal anymore. We have to repackage and remarket ourselves to keep the faithful involved and drum up new supporters.
We are not the same group we were 10 years ago when we could find a lot and build a house, says Mumford.
At this crucial juncture, the affiliate is conducting strategic planning sessions. The current model has worked well to build 50 to 60 houses a year. The question now is whether the affiliate wants to keep doing what it has proved it can do well or jump to building 100 to 150 houses a year.
If we double our capacity, we will have to change, says Mumford. We would have to step up our community connections, especially around the land. This takes us from a nonprofit to being a community developer. We need to make sure we know why we would want to be that large.
Mumford already has answered the question for himself.
I think the city needs Habitat to double its efforts, he says. We are a proven entity. The dream for me is that the Habitat model be embraced by the public sector. Maybe it's a dream beyond Habitat itself, to use Habitat as a model to show you don't have to have a huge bureaucracy and get bogged down in a lot of rules to provide safe, affordable housing. Habitat's role could be a leader, consultant, a guideand still build houses.
Antigo, Wis., is home to Habitat for Humanity of Langlede County, one of the organizations newest U.S. affiliates. With a population of 20,000, Langlede County faces a significant shortage of simple, decent shelter. According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics, more than one of every 10 housing units in the county is substandard, and 40 families are on the county's waiting list for subsidized housing. Because the area has effectively provided affordable housing for its elderly residents, the new Habitat affiliate will focus on helping younger families achieve their dreams of homeownership.
Few vacant houses are available for rehabilitation in Antigo, but vacant land is plentiful and affordable at about $7,000 per lot, a blessing to the new affiliate. Hard-working and eager to start building, the affiliate's leadership already had an office and the first lot donation when Habitat for Humanity International approved the affiliate's application earlier this year.