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Forsyth Habitat aims to be greener, more inclusive

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County wants to be more environmentally-friendly in the affordable housing its builds, and more diverse and inclusive as an organization.

This fall, the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International will start building its first “green” house to pilot a longer-term effort to integrate sustainable practices into the design, location and construction of its houses.

“It needs to be something that is practical and replicable,” says Sylvia Oberle, executive director.

And after five months of planning, Habitat also is launching several efforts to enlist and engage volunteers, staff and board members in better reflecting the community’s racial and economic diversity.

“We’re opening the door to some intentional work on becoming more diverse and inclusive as an organization,” Oberle says.

Founded in 1985 and operating with an annual budget of $3.6 million and a staff of 21 employees, Habitat currently is building its 236th house, one of 17 it plans to build this year.

Based on a suggestion by Wake Forest Baptist Church, the congregation that meets in Wake Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, Habitat is planning its first “Green Build” project.

Other partners in the collaborative project, which has received $25,000 from Lowe’s and $15,000 from Duke Energy Corp., include Temple Emmanuel, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, Parkway United Church of Christ and the Wake Forest Student Environmental Action Coalition.

For six months, a Habitat design team has been meeting once a week to select materials, scout locations and develop plans for the new house.

For five or six years, the Habitat affiliate has built energy-efficient homes under a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy, Oberle says, and it will be adopting for the Green Build house industry environmental standards under the N.C. HealthyBuilt Homes Program.

Using the new standards, Habitat in the new green house and then in some of its other new houses will use Hardie plank siding rather than petroleum-based vinyl siding, as well as tankless water heaters and low-flush toilets.

The green house will rise two stories rather than one, will occupy a lot roughly half the size of traditional Habitat lots, and the cost of sponsoring it will total $60,000 to $65,000, or about 10 percent to 15 percent more than traditional Habitat houses.

Habitat selected the location for the new house so the structure would get lots of southern exposure to the sun and because public transportation and other public services will be easily accessible to its owners.

The lot will be landscaped to use less water, and the house will be built with as many materials as possible acquired within 500 miles of the site.

Oberle says Habitat already is incorporating into other houses it is building elements of the green project, including the training of volunteers in the new materials, design and construction.

Habitat’s inclusiveness initiative parallels a strategic goal of Habitat for Humanity International to build a more diverse organization, Oberle says.

Like many nonprofits, she says, Habitat counts on a volunteer base of mainly white, middle-class people, and serves mainly a minority population.

Working with consultant Chandra Irvin and with groups of community representatives, Habitat has set up teams to broaden its base of volunteers and keep more of its homeowners, 93 percent of whom have been African Americans, engaged with the organization on an ongoing basis.

Habitat is one of 12 affiliates to receive a $25,000 challenge grant from Habitat International to involve more African-American churches in the organization, and now is raising $25,000 from African-American churches to match the grant and sponsor a new house.

Habitat also is working to involve the children of its homeowners in Habitat International’s Youth United program under which local high school students already have raised money and built five houses.

Habitat aims next year to develop a chapter at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black institution, like one it already has established at Wake Forest University.

The affiliate also will get its first African-American board president next year when Kathy Stitts, associate dean at the School of Business and Economics at Winston-Salem State, begins her term.

And with the support of its current board, Habitat continues to work on building a more diverse staff and a more inclusive board, Oberle says.

“You can be diverse, but that doesn’t mean you’re open,” she says. “It’s the kind of thing all nonprofits should be thinking about.”

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