Midcoast Weekender

Habitat for Humanity expands role to meet Midcoast housing need

By Dan Otis Smith | Jul 16, 2017
Photo by: Dan Otis Smith Harmony Fuller and her son, Maddox Young, in a home she bought through Habitat for Humanity last year.

Rockland — Harmony Fuller struggled to find a stable living situation for years.

As a single mom with a young son, it was hard to make ends meet living in area rentals. Even with a job as an administrative assistant at Maine Behavioral Healthcare, she said, it was difficult keeping up with $900 monthly rents in small apartments that were expensive to heat.

“The last apartment that I was living in wasn’t too overly expensive, but the heating was the biggest thing in the winter that made it really hard,” she said. “And also that house was for sale. So I was like, ‘If this sells, I don’t know what I’m going to be able to afford.’”

Last year she moved into a house on Brewster Street in Rockland. “I’ve paid $900 for a one-bedroom [apartment rental]. I’m paying less than that, and this is a three-bedroom house,” she said.

The house has a spacious, open-concept kitchen and living room, with rooms down hallways on either end. During an interview, Maddox Young, Fuller’s 6-year-old son and a recent kindergarten graduate, watched "Power Rangers" and begged for frozen waffles. Asked if he liked living in the house, he nodded yes.

“This is a lot better. Maddox can play outside, you know, he has his own room. He has a lot of nice places to play. It’s just a nice, safe home,” Fuller said.

Stories like this don’t just happen on their own.

“Initially, I knew another family that had gotten a Habitat house and it was really nice, and I thought that would be a good opportunity for me as a single mother,” Fuller said. In 2015, she filled out an application on Midcoast Habitat for Humanity’s website, which was followed by a second application asking for more details about Fuller’s financial situation.

Fuller said she had been under the impression Habitat for Humanity houses were given to people who were homeless or deeply impoverished. In fact, the organization goes in depth to learn about a family’s ability to pay off Habitat’s 30-year low- or zero-interest, fixed-rate mortgages, which cost an average of $600 to $800 per month, including property taxes. That requires stable income and good credit. The online application shows income guidelines from $19,800 for a single person to $48,800 for a family of five.

Next, two representatives from Habitat’s Family Selection Committee visited Fuller and her son at their apartment to learn more about their situation. Fuller was told she would have to resolve some credit issues to qualify for a home, but Habitat directed her to other organizations that could help clear them up.

Then, in June of last year, she and Maddox were selected as a “partner family.”

“And then they said, ‘And your house is gonna get started being built on Monday,’ which was three days away,” Fuller said. “The house was built in one week, which was crazy to watch.” Fuller’s house and another directly behind it were built in a one-week Home Builders Blitz. More than 30 local businesses and organizations contributed to the blitz. Fuller said her home was built primarily by Phi Builders + Architects of Rockport.

“It’s been a really great journey. It’s made home ownership possible for me, which wouldn’t have been possible before,” she said.

Need, ability to pay, willingness to partner

By the time this story is published, Fuller will have completed the final eligibility requirement for her home: sweat-equity hours. This rounds out the overarching criteria for a successful Habitat applicant, according to Executive Director Tia Anderson: need, ability to pay and willingness to partner.

That willingness to partner translates to 250 hours of service to the organization for a one-adult family, or 350 for two. In most cases, applicants get many of their hours contributing to the construction of their own home or others’, alongside the volunteer laborers who are at the heart of Habitat homes’ affordability. Family members can help with a limited number of the hours, and even a strong report card from a student in the family can shave down some hours.

Fuller said she helped with some elements of her home’s construction, such as painting the bathroom, but the quick build didn’t allow her much time to help. Instead, the lion’s share of her hours have been accumulated working Saturdays at the ReStore on Route 90 in Rockport, where Habitat receives donated, gently used furniture, appliances and home-building materials and sells them at a steep discount.

Anderson said Habitat had elevated requirements for partner families since the Midcoast chapter’s inception in 1990. She was brought on seven years ago as the first paid employee.

“It was all volunteer run for 20 years,” she said. In those early days, the organization had a goal of building one house per year, with a model she said did good work but had its shortcomings. “The criteria wasn’t stringent enough,” she said.

Anderson said the income stability and credit requirements ensure that applicants will not end up with a house they can’t afford. “If people can’t afford it, it’s bad for everyone,” she said.

Now, Midcoast Habitat for Humanity is aiming to build two houses or more a year and has significantly expanded its activities as it has tightened up its homeowner requirements. The build tally is up to 31 in the organization’s lifetime.

While stricter requirements for new homeowners may allow for a more stable, lasting affordable housing environment, Anderson acknowledges that there is great need for housing among those who cannot meet the requirements. She said Habitat does its best never to outright deny applicants, but rather directs them to social services that may help them get on their feet and on their way to eligibility. Harmony Fuller’s credit issues are an example.

“There’s just such a need from a variety of demographics,” Anderson said. “It really is widespread.”

She cited Maine State Housing Authority statistics indicating that 48 percent of Knox County cannot afford to own a median-priced home. “To make it a healthy year-round economy, we need affordable housing.”

The rental market is no better. According to a recent Weekender story on gentrification in Rockland, median income for renters is roughly $10,000 less than what one would need to afford the city's average monthly rent of $1,007.

Indeed, Anderson said many of Habitat’s applicants are looking to escape unaffordable rental situations, as Fuller was, or live in Section 8 housing.

The widespread need for housing has led Habitat to expand its activities in a variety of directions. Anderson said a future aim is to construct small dwellings for one or two people to address housing need for veterans and the elderly, a departure from the family-focused homes Habitat has traditionally built.

The organization is also increasingly collaborating with other groups to assist those for whom any home may simply be out of reach. The Camden Herald reported in May on Habitat’s partnership with the Knox County Homeless Coalition to build up to 15 tiny homes on the coalition’s Hospitality House campus, where 23 adults and 13 children are living as they transition out of homelessness. Many additional clients are put up in motels.

The tiny homes are intended to contribute to the coalition’s goal of providing temporary, transitional housing for people whose safety may be at risk in their current situation.

Anderson said both neighbors and municipalities have become more collaborative in recent years. Camden donated a plot of land for a house on Gosses Hill Road, Rockport helped on a recent project, while Warren and Rockland have adopted zoning ordinances which allow them to sell tax-acquired property to a lower bidder if they determine the bidder may provide some added benefit.

Finally, Midcoast Habitat has also increasingly sought to acquire property when the opportunity presents itself and the organization determines it could allow the development of affordable housing. The most prominent example is a large property on Philbrick Avenue, a dead-end street off the west side of Camden Street.

In 2012, 13 homes and several sheds that had been located on Philbrick Avenue were demolished. The homes all had septic systems that had long-since failed. The property could become a site for the construction of 12 small, one- or two-bedroom homes.

In Warren, Habitat is preparing a lot for the construction of a pair of homes on Forest Road off Beechwood Street, and it has multiple projects scheduled in Rockland. The group is actively seeking families to fill those homes once they are ready.

In addition to helping families and individuals deal with acute housing need, Habitat aims to establish lasting affordable housing and economically healthy communities in the Midcoast. “It’s beneficial to those that work on the houses, beneficial to the homeowners, beneficial to the community,” Anderson said. The projects have a ripple effect in producing additional tax dollars and stable community members.

A few of Habitat’s earliest homeowners have paid off their mortgages. Whether they choose to remain in their homes or eventually sell, ideally, those homes “remain affordable housing,” Anderson said.

In that sense, Habitat’s work creates potential for the future. “That’s definitely the intent," she said.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jul 16, 2017 17:36

Congratulations to Habitat for Humanity! This is good news. To help people get started. However, I am concerned that taxes will curtail the enthusiasm for these first time home- owners. Taxes always increase and personal budgets may not be able to be stretched. City budgets are needed for City upkeep. Salaries increase at the town government level. And eventually reality hits when one retires and income remains stagnant and taxes keep rising.



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