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Home is Where the Heart is: Habitat and Homebuilders Association Join Forces

By Jessica Isaacs | jessica@highcountrypress.com

Photos by Sarah Weiffenbach

Home is a safe place to sleep at night. It’s a haven from the busy workday and a quiet place to do homework. It’s blank canvas on which we splash our favorite styles and ideas. It’s a warm environment for entertaining our friends and a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the world.

It’s the one place in which we can truly be ourselves, and it’s a place to call our own. It’s a labor of love, and it’s where we raise our families. No matter how you look at it, home is where the heart is.

Countless studies show that owning a home has direct, positive impacts on a family’s health, wellbeing and stability. Adults who own their homes often perform better at work, and kids raised in healthy, stable families often do better in school.

Many families pour their hearts into building a home that’s right for them. Some spend decades saving up to buy a place of their own. Some take a fixer-upper and turn it into their dream home over time. Some work day in and day out to provide for their loved ones and will still never be able to own a home — that is, unless there’s someone around to give them a helping hand.

Volunteers work to construct a Habitat home in the summer of 2015. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.
Volunteers work to construct a Habitat home in the summer of 2015. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.

For some families, home ownership is a blessing and a privilege. For others, it’s a dream they’ll never know. Here in the High Country of North Carolina, where living expenses and real estate are costly, achieving it is certainly a challenge.

One local agency, Habitat for Humanity of Watauga County, has been working for nearly 30 years to bridge the gap between poverty and stability that often prevents people from buying a home.

This year, the High Country Home Builders Association, another respected, longstanding organization, has stepped up to the plate and made a colossal commitment to supporting Habitat’s next project.

Habitat for Humanity

Watauga Habitat is a branch of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit ecumenical housing ministry that seeks to put God’s love into action to build new houses and create safe, healthy, comfortable homes for people around the world.

With local affiliates across the globe, the organization seeks to further the mission its founder, the late Millard Fuller.

A self-made millionaire before the age of 30, Fuller was led by personal struggles to reevaluate the direction of his life, Habitat.org explains. In the early 1970s, he and his wife sold all of their possessions, donated the money to the poor and moved to Africa to establish a housing project that would practically apply the teachings of Christ.

Not long after, Habitat International was born, and his work is still continued today in countless communities.

Habitat homes are built using volunteer labor with the help of the families who receive them, also known in the organization as “partner families,” who must meet certain criteria before beginning their journey to homeownership through the agency.

In many cases, Habitat families have enough monthly income to make a small house payment but not enough to qualify for a bank loan. Qualifying partner families also go through criminal background checks and must be willing to invest “sweat equity,” or volunteer hours, into the construction of their own home and the homes of other partner families.

Alex Hooker, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Watauga County. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.
Alex Hooker, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Watauga County. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.

Once complete, the homes are not given away but sold to the partner family as a zero-interest mortgage loan. Even without the expense of labor, Habitat homes cost approximately $100,000 to build in our area, which leaves the average Habitat homeowner with a monthly mortgage payment of $450-$500, including taxes, insurance and property owner’s association fees. Because of that financial responsibility, interested partner families must have a steady source of income.

First incorporated in 1987 as “Blue Ridge Habitat for Humanity,” the Watauga affiliate stepped out on its own in 1993 when the local chapter separated into two groups to better serve Watauga and Avery counties. Later that year, Watauga Habitat built its first home near the hospital in Boone off of Bamboo Road.

In 2011, after nearly two decades of building in Watauga, a sizeable donation allowed the affiliate to make a down payment on a 20-acre lot in the Green Valley community. This property would soon become home to the agency’s first subdivision, named GreenWood.

Since then, four partner families have moved into beautiful, sustainable homes in the neighborhood. Homes in this development also feature energy-saving extras and are built well beyond typical code standards, saving families between $200-$300 each month on utilities.

At Home in the High Country

Home ownership comes with greater challenges here in the High Country, where tourism and part-time residency play important roles in the local economy. That’s why the folks at Watauga Habitat, including Executive Director Alex Hooker, stay hard at work to make it a reality for those who need help finding safe, reliable, affordable living conditions.

“Housing costs are so high here due to the competition with students and second home buyers. That’s driven up the costs for Watauga residents,” said Hooker. “The median price of a home in our county is a lot higher than the North Carolina average. The fair market rent established by HUD is close to $800 for a three-bedroom apartment. For somebody who makes minimum wage to afford that, they’d have to work more than 80 hours a week to keep up with their payments.

“Plus, more than 30 percent of our population is below the poverty level, so those three things combined make it impossible for some local people to afford a decent place on their own.”

Habitat and its area partners know that helping families build and buy their own homes is an essential part of growing a stronger community.

“There are so many studies that point toward the benefit of home ownership and the direct correlation between that and emotional and physical health,” Hooker said. “When lower-income families are renting and forced to move constantly, it takes so much effort, especially if they have children — it can be so consuming. When you stabilize that family, put them in their own home and take the worry out of the equation, they’re able to focus on themselves and their family.

A Habitat home site. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.
A Habitat home site. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.

“Parents do better with job opportunities, holding jobs and working their way up, and that’s just part of it if they get that opportunity. That’s what we try to create for people, and it really puts them in a position to break out of the cycle of poverty.”

The affiliate has established 26 homes for local families since its inception, and, with increased support this year from its friends at the High Country Home Builders Association, it will complete another project in the GreenWood development this summer.

High Country Home Builders

Also a fixture in the High Country, the HCHBA is an organization comprised of members who are general contractors building residential and commercial structures in the area, as well as associate members who serve the homebuilding industry.

If you visit the group online at highcountryhba.com, you’ll find a complete directory of its membership, which also includes building suppliers, grading companies, plumbers, electricians, painters, carpenters, bankers, developers and other professionals whose livelihoods depend on the industry.

HCHBA President Chuck Perry, who first joined the association in 1999, said the group seeks to serve its members and the community by focusing on its core values.

“Whether its political action or economic process, we work to stay involved in things that are good for homebuilding. We also work to support our community in any way we can,” said Perry. “If we think about our homes, what else do we, as consumers, expect so much from? Our home is a place we feel safe in and it’s where we raise are kids and where we stay warm and dry. Not everybody has the opportunity to do that, so we, as homebuilders, feel the need to support housing initiatives, and Habitat already has a great program in place.”

Habitat’s mission and its established systems make it a perfect avenue through which the homebuilders’ association can channel its service.

“It’s a natural fit for us to work with Habitat. They’re trying to get people into homes who may not otherwise be able to afford it — a place that’s safe and dry and comfortable that they can be proud of — so it’s always been a good fit for us,” Perry said. “We want to help the community, and Habitat has a model in place that serves it well, so why not allow our skillset to serve theirs? Then it becomes a win/win.”

For many years now, the two longstanding organizations have joined forces to tackle building projects, and the HCHBA has served as a valuable resource that connects Habitat with the building industry.

“We have the relationships in place to help with the procurement of materials and provide labor to build a home. That’s not to say that Habitat can’t do that on its own — in fact, it’s been doing that for years all across the country and has done a marvelous job of it,” said Perry. “Here in the High Country, we are in a unique position to help make things easier on Alex and his group in terms of getting together materials, which can often be the most difficult part.”

Working Together

This year, the HCHBA has gone above and beyond to help Habitat reach its goals with the latest project, providing an unprecedented amount of materials and labor during the 2016 construction season.

“We went to three of our building supplier — 84 Lumber, New River Building Supply and Blevins Building Supply — and asked if they would mind to support us with this initiative. We asked them each for $5,000 worth of products to give, and they said yes,” said Perry. “Part of the reason they did that is because there are hundreds of us homebuilders here in the county, and we’re buying products from them day in and day out. I would like to think they’re supporting that relationship by supporting this initiative.”

Volunteers work to construct a Habitat home in the summer of 2015. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.
Volunteers work to construct a Habitat home in the summer of 2015. Photo by Sarah Weiffenbach.

The HCHBA members will not only supply $15,000 or more worth of materials for the next GreenWood home, they will also provide the labor to put those products into action at the jobsite.

“That will essentially provide the shell for a brand new house — the framing, the siding and the roof,” Perry said. “$15,000 worth of materials is big time, and the labor to do that work is a major endeavor.”

The time and materials provided by the homebuilders’ association will bring a level of expertise to the next project that will streamline Habitat’s construction process and yield the benefits of professional-quality work for the new homeowners.

“They’re getting a house that is essentially professionally built through and through, although the labor is done on a volunteer basis. That can make a big difference,” Hooker said. “They can go out and do the work a lot quicker and more efficiently than what a normal volunteer team would be able to do. That increases our house production and gets the homeowners in the house faster.”

The HCHBA’s leadership and the generosity of its members and suppliers have made this venerable partnership with Habitat possible, as well as the expanded contributions for the upcoming project.

“Our board of directors have always made it a priority for us to take on a build project every year,” said Perry. “We have sought to use the skillset of our team of members and serve our community through that skillset, and the Habitat partnership worked out great for us this year. We wish we could do this all of the time, and our board always makes it a priority for us.”

The Habitat team hopes to kick off the 2016 build season in GreenWood with work beginning on June 1.

As the two organizations continue to collaborate in service, their strong relationship will continue to make a difference for generations to come.

“We all live on this earth together and we all have skills,” Perry said. “If we can share those skills with other people, that’s good, and that’s what is important to us at the association. We’re all volunteers and we all have jobs, families, businesses and limitations, but together we can achieve more.”

For more information on Habitat for Humanity of Watauga County, visit wataugahabitat.org or call 828-268-9696.

To learn more about the HCHBA, visit highcountryhba.com.