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Building for future – Eye on innovation

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — To help meet growing demand, Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte is looking for land and sponsors — and innovative ideas about delivering affordable housing to low-income people.

“A real challenge for us is going to be to think out of the box in terms of how we provide housing,” says Bert Green, the group’s executive director since 1993.

An affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International in Americus, Ga., the Charlotte group has been growing quickly. Formed in 1983, the group built 200 houses in its first 11 years.

It will build its 500th house this year, when its annual output will grow to 60 houses from 46 in 2000. And it aims to build 70 next year.

Still, securing affordable land, recruiting sponsors and finding qualified homeowner prospects is challenging, Green says.

“We have about 50 lots right now, but we need a lot more,” he says. “It’s probably the most challenging link in this organization.”

Homes, which take a month to six weeks to develop, including 12 days of construction, are built by volunteers from companies, churches, civic groups, schools and nonprofits, with homebuyers spending at least 275 hours building their own houses and those of other buyers.

Habitat buys building materials and also recruits sponsors to contribute materials and sponsor houses. Big materials sponsors include Dow Chemical, Whirlpool, Square D, Eaton, Hunter Douglas and Larson Manufacturing, with Sunbelt Rentals donating equipment.

Habitat buys land or gets donations of land and, after building the house, sells the house and land to the family at no profit and provides a mortgage of 15 to 20 years at no interest, or about $400 a month.

This year, Habitat will make loans totaling more than $3 million – and recycle mortgage payments to build new homes.

Yet even if Habitat can find affordable land and sponsors for houses, average costs ranging from $53,000 to $55,000 can make owning a home beyond the reach even for homeless people with jobs.

“The biggest challenge right now in this community is not home ownership,” Green says. “It’s affordable rental.”

With interest rates falling, Habitat should look for ways to “serve those who can least afford to live in this community,” he says.

One model, he says, is a collaboration between Habitat’s Greensboro affiliate and Greensboro Urban Ministry, which together have built – and are expanding – an apartment complex to serve as transitional housing for people who can’t yet afford to buy a home.

Charlotte’s affiliate, for example, might team up with another group to expand its eight apartment units of transitional housing, Green says.

And with a big chunk of the region’s population having moved from other communities, he says, Habitat needs to keep telling its story to attract sponsors and volunteers as well as new homeowners.

“You can’t rest on your laurels,” he says.

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