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Interfaith looks to assist with Habitat housing

December 22, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

For more than two years, members of a Washington County group devoted to promoting tolerance among those of different faiths has talked about how to break down the barriers between them. Perhaps, say some members of the Interfaith Task Force, success will come from building something tangible together.

Like what? Like a house similar to those built by other local groups in cooperation with the Washington County chapter of Habitat for Humanity. On Tuesday, Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. in the Kepler Theater at Hagerstown Community College, the task force and any interested members of the public will hear a how-to-do-it presentation by Sherry Brown Cooper, Habitat's executive director.

I recently sat in when Cooper spoke to the interfaith group's board to let them know how much work and planning are involved in a Habitat project.

The first part is screening the applicants to find a family that is willing to put in the required 500 hours of "sweat equity" and which has sufficient income to meet Habitat's income guidelines, (really a modification of the Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines), because Habitat does not give these homes away, she said.

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"They cannot have large outstanding payments on bills. We don't want them to lose the house," she said, but added that the dwelling they'll receive is not elaborate by any means.

"We build simple, decent, affordable housing," she said, adding the design of the typical home, adapted to the available lot from a Habitat book of standard plans, costs about $55,000 for construction materials and services.

"That does not all have to be cash. It can be donated service and materials as well," she said.

"In the majority of cases, we form a steering committee for the project. It would be nice if we had a representative from all the individual churches. We look for one or two to be the house leaders. They typically have some knowledge of construction," she said.

If "some knowledge" isn't that much, she said, not to worry, because Habitat has a part-time construction manager to guide the process.

Another member of the steering committee typically helps the family with the mortgage process, she said, and someone else, with some public relations ability, gets out the word about the project. Cooper said a third person acts as a fund-raising coordinator to keep track of the money as it comes in.

As mentioned previously, Habitat houses aren't gifts to the families that get them.

"This a hand up, not a handout," she said.

Cooper said each Habitat family really has two mortgage notes. The first one is for the amount Habitat sells the home to the homeowner for. The second is for the difference between the selling price and the appraised value.

"The first note is what the mortgage payments are made on, and there's no interest. The second note is forgiven over the life of the mortgage," she said.

"However, if the homeowner should sell, they have to pay off the balance of the first note and the second note," she said.

"They're earning equity, just like anyone else," she said.

And part of how they earn it is by putting their own labor into it - about 500 hours' worth.

"That's a lot of hours. Some of those we allow friends and family to do," she said.

Children can also help, although there are some rules because of insurance restrictions: Children must be 14 to work on the job site, 16 to use power tools and over 18 to get on the roof, she said.

Because most of the work is done by volunteers who have other jobs, Cooper said that "usually it's a weekend day build."

For retirees and those with flexible schedules, she said, Habitat sets up a "weekday build."

For that reason, the work usually takes six months, she said, although "you have weather that plays into it."

Work can begin before all the money is raised, she said, "because once it starts there's an excitement that builds."

From Cooper's description, building a Habitat house is an involved process that requires people dedicated to raising funds, begging for donated materials and overseeing everything from collections to who's working on which crew on a certain day. In such a shared activity, people learn, as the old saying goes, who among is them is a show horse and who is willing to pull the plow to get things done.

Whether on not the interfaith group decides to make this one of its activities, I've heard Cooper's presentation and I'd recommend it to any group searching for a way to improve the community by helping some of its individual members.

Habitat is about more than houses, Cooper said. It also puts its client families together with community services that they may need and teaches them the valuable lesson that nothing worth having is obtained without some effort. It's a lesson we could all stand to hear from time to time.

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