Habitat for Humanity is internationally known for building and rehabbing homes for low-income populations, but the organization's local chapter also has a deep focus on bringing people together and providing hope to traditionally underserved communities.
Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley (Habitat Huron Valley) was founded in 1989 in an effort to create more affordable homeownership opportunities for Washtenaw County residents. Even though the organization serves the entire county, it mainly focuses on Ypsi and Ypsi Township. The organization specifically partners with the township's Gault Village, West Willow, and Sugarbrook neighborhoods to empower residents and revive their communities.
The organization initially focused on construction, but switched to exclusively buying and renovating houses in 2008 amid the recession and foreclosure crisis. Habitat Huron Valley community development manager Sarah Teare says municipalities and residents supported the move because it didn't make sense for Habitat Huron Valley to build new homes when so many were sitting vacant. Habitat Huron Valley first received federal funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to purchase and renovate homes in Gault Village. The organization then expanded its reach into West Willow about five years ago, and into Sugarbrook last year.
Since its inception, Habitat Huron Valley has built or renovated more than 200 homes in Washtenaw County. Its current strategic plan calls for the organization to maintain its goal of 20 rehabs per year, while layering in efforts to serve hundreds of families through repair projects and community development. The organization has provided over 500 critical home improvement projects and over 4,000 minor repairs and energy efficiency fixes since 2011. In terms of all of the Habitat for Humanity International organizations, it's ranked No. 1 in the country for number of homes renovated and No. 8 in the state for number of families served.
Habitat Huron Valley's core initiative is the Homeownership Program, which provides resources to people who typically can’t become homeowners through traditional methods. The program helps families and individuals overcome financial barriers by offering them an affordable monthly payment on their mortgage.
Habitat Huron Valley currently finances its own loans, but it will soon begin partnering with third-party lenders to provide loans. The organization considers each individual's income and debt while figuring out an affordable payment for his or her household. It guarantees a homeowner's mortgage, taxes, and insurance will equal no more than 30 percent of his or her income.
In order to become a Habitat homeowner, an individual must qualify for an affordable mortgage, make a $1,000 down payment, and put in at least 250 hours of “sweat equity." Every adult who lives in a Habitat home has to complete the "sweat equity" hours, which usually involve hands-on home improvement work, like painting and landscaping, at their Habitat home or other Habitat homes.
Nakesha Walker moved into her Habitat home in Sugarbrook in October. She credits the Homeownership Program with her ability to become a homebuyer because she didn't have the means to qualify for a conventional loan. Habitat Huron Valley worked with her to come up with an affordable payment that didn't make her feel overwhelmed from paying too much out of pocket.
Walker thinks her life has gotten a lot easier and more manageable since becoming a homeowner because she pays less on her mortgage than she did on rent. When she was renting an apartment, she was constantly worried about her finances and trying to figure out how she would put food on the table. Now that she's a homeowner, she's able to go beyond simply providing the basic necessities for herself and her 2-year-old daughter Nyla. She took advantage of Habitat Huron Valley's homeowner workshops, where homeowners learn how to maintain their homes, how to be a good neighbor and community member, and how to stay on top of their finances.
"I feel like Habitat allows you to understand the process behind buying a home," Walker says. "I always push people towards Habitat because you get more than just the experience of buying a home. It’s very educational for new homeowners."
Those workshops are part of the Habitat Financial Education Program, which offers free one-on-one coaching and group classes to provide Washtenaw County residents the resources and support to reach their financial goals. One of the most common financial goals is to prepare residents to become homebuyers through the Homeownership Program. The program focuses on basic financial literacy, like budgeting and reading a credit report, as well as financial strategies, such as increasing savings and reducing debt.
Home Improvement Programs
The organization's Home Improvement Programs were launched about five years ago in an effort to help Washtenaw County homeowners and renters save money on their energy bills and reduce their environmental impact. Any resident who meets the income requirements is able to take advantage of these services, regardless of whether they live in a Habitat home or not. The programs offer furnace testing and tune-ups, refrigerator replacements, LED light bulb replacements, and home repairs and weatherization.
Habitat Huron Valley partners with DTE Energy to offer its Refrigerator Replacement Program to homeowners and renters for free. DTE customers who have old or inefficient refrigerators are able to have them replaced them with new models. Similarly, Washtenaw County homeowners can get a free furnace tune-up and installation of energy saving measures through the organization's Furnace Test and Tune Program. They may qualify for a replacement furnace at a significantly reduced cost if their current furnace is found to be unsafe or irreparable.
The Home Improvement Programs offer both large and small repairs to homeowners and renters. Last year, the organization did between 15 and 20 exterior home improvements in the Gault Village, West Willow, and Sugarbrook neighborhoods. The Veteran's Critical Repair Program allows the organization to do at least a few larger home repair projects, costing up to $15,000 each, for homeowners who have served in the military.
In addition to the Home Improvement Programs, there are special initiatives called "one-off projects." Home Improvement Program manager Heidi Frankenhauser says those projects are dependent on available funding sources and community need. Last year, Habitat Huron Valley received funding from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to do exterior and roof repairs on eight houses in West Willow.
Habitat Huron Valley is currently partnering with SolarYpsi, a local grassroots effort, to do roof replacements and solar power system installations on at least a dozen homes that have been built or renovated by the organization in the city of Ypsi. SolarYpsi founder Dave Strenski has already identified a number of Habitat homes that have the most sun exposure and are most in need of roof repairs. But this "one-off project" still needs community support and funding before it can happen.
In 2011, Habitat Huron Valley formally joined Habitat for Humanity International’s neighborhood revitalization initiative. Teare believes the move solidified the organization’s commitment to the approach of working with residents, community partners, elected officials, and organized groups to improve quality of life in their neighborhoods. Habitat’s role is to bring people together so they can meet each other, share information and ideas, and discuss their neighborhood’s strengths and challenges.
"We’ve always had this focus on doing more than just building one house and putting a family in a home," Teare says. "We’ve had a commitment to really lifting up communities and making them stronger. And the strength of the communities is the folks who live in those neighborhoods."
Habitat Huron Valley tries to provide connections to the right resources, so residents are able to fulfill the vision or achieve the goals that they want for their community. The organization has previously held neighborhood cleanups and picnics, established yard and garden clubs, and built a park pavillion. It's currently working on creating a tool lending library in the West Willow neighborhood.
“We commit to long-term investment in these neighborhoods to help guide the residents and community partners through a process to discover those needs and desires, and then help to bring actions into place that make the communities better," Teare says.
Habitat Huron Valley is always looking for volunteers who can help out with renovations, programs, events, and the Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley ReStore, a resale shop at 170 Aprill Dr. in Ann Arbor that typically generates enough revenue to sponsor three homes per year. Karol Chubb, Habitat Huron Valley's development associate of special events and marketing, estimates that the organization has a pool of about 6,000 volunteers who have continuously pitched in with various projects. A typical house renovation takes 2,000 volunteer hours to complete within three to six months.
The organization is usually working on five or six rehabs at one time. Right now there are four or five houses under renovation in the Ypsi area, including a Women Build project, which consists of primarily female volunteers who are committing money and volunteer hours to a home that will end up belonging to a local woman. The rehab was kicked off on March 8, International Women’s Day, and is expected to wrap up in mid-summer or early fall. Volunteers who would like to join Women Build can donate $75 and sign up online.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.