Habitat For Humanity Marks A Milestone

fromOPB

Monday, Habitat for Humanity dedicates its 500,000th house. The homebuilding charity is known for using volunteer labor to help build affordable homes for low-income families. In Portland, Ore., the organization has bought up to 150 empty lots — enough to keep it building for the next five years. A look at the good that can come from the failing housing market.

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Habitat for Humanity dedicated its 500,000th home today. The milestone comes as demand for affordable housing is as high as ever, both in the U.S. and overseas.

From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rob Manning reports that Habitat has been on a buying spree in the Pacific Northwest, snapping up land for houses.

ROB MANNING: About a dozen people are drilling, hammering, and sawing on a small crop of new houses just east of Portland, Oregon. But this isn't a salaried construction crew, most are volunteers, like out-of-work energy technician, Courtney Brenner.

COURTNEY BRENNER: You get idle hands, you don't know what to do with yourself, and so I thought you give back to the community, start working, and meeting good people.

MANNING: For months, no one worked on this lot. The developer had run out of money partway through building a subdivision, the bank foreclosed, then Habitat for Humanity's Portland chapter bought it. Steve Messinetti is the local director.

STEVE MESSINETTI: These are eight lots that we're building eight homes on. It's two fourplexes that'll be two- and three-bedroom homes that are about 1,100 square feet.

MANNING: Habitat for Humanity helps low-income people afford homes. It relies on volunteers to do most of the work, including the buyers themselves. The nonprofit provides zero-interest financing with monthly payments capped at 30 percent of the buyer's income. Messinetti says for years Portland Habitat's biggest obstacle was the high price of land until two years ago.

MESSINETTI: When we buy a lot like this for less than $30,000 that's fully developed - meaning the utilities and infrastructure is already in - essentially, the land's free because it costs that much just to do that work.

MANNING: At the same time, Messinetti says more and more people were calling his office in need of low-cost housing. Now, Messinetti and his counterparts across the country are raising money and buying land as quickly as they can. In Portland, Habitat is now one of the area's biggest homebuilders. It's close to accumulating 150 housing lots or five years' worth of land.

TOM SKAAR: I think that window is drawing to a close.

MANNING: Tom Skaar is a for-profit residential builder in the Portland area. He says Habitat is running out of opportunities.

SKAAR: We didn't have that much vacant inventory here. And there are large national homebuilders now coming into town, and those guys are also in here buying lots.

MANNING: Skaar says the presence of national builders doesn't mean another housing boom. He says construction may wait until prices go up and that may take a while. The stalled economy is also helping buyers who won't ever put homes on their land. A few years ago, Portland-area voters approved millions of dollars to buy land for future parks from willing sellers. Given the housing market, sellers are more willing.

The Metro region's natural areas director, Kathleen Brennan-Hunter says that's the story with a 1,000-acre forest her agency bought last year.

KATHLEEN BRENNAN-HUNTER, NATURAL AREAS PROGRAM DIRECTOR, METRO: That property owner probably would have proceeded with development. I think our timing was good in the sense that we were able to offer a good value.

MANNING: In the end, Brennan-Hunter's agency and Habitat for Humanity have two things in common: they can appeal to the civic values of Portlanders. And just as importantly, at a time when loans can be hard to find, they deal in cash.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Portland.

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