Herald JournalHerald Journal, Dec. 27, 2004

Habitat for Humanity wants to be more active in eastern McLeod

By Jane Otto
Staff Writer

One Saturday morning more than 50 voices softly singing “Bless This House” came from within a small rambler on Hutchinson’s Hilltop Drive.

Their harmonious sound rose above the din of the day’s strong and bitter cold winds.

It was Dec. 18. Crow River’s Habitat for Humanity was dedicating its 11th home. It was the 11th in 10 years that donations, volunteers and the homeowners themselves have built.

Jeanne Ibbitson, her three children by her side, tearfully accepted the keys to her new home, saying “The memories built into this house are so much more than the structure itself.”

That joy and celebration, along with the sweat and hard work that goes into it, is something Habitat Director Judy Dinger wants to bring to the Winsted-Lester Prairie area.

“We really want to get into that eastern half of the county,” she said. “It’s important for us to be able to impact the entire county — making the Habitat equation work for more people.”

Habitat for Humanity has been partnering with people to build affordable homes worldwide for 28 years.

Locally, Crow River Habitat for Humanity has built 11 homes, five in Hutchinson, four in Glencoe, and one each in Brownton and Stewart. The organization will break ground on a twin home in Hutchinson this spring. One family has qualified and Habitat is seeking another.

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To qualify, an applicant must meet certain income guidelines, not have excessive debt, and have a “special” need, such as living in substandard housing. Homeowners also must put in 400 hours of labor into their home. From dry walling to plumbing, they can learn a lot through the process, Dinger said.

“Because we’re building that house with volunteer labor, we need that homeowner there,” she added.

Volunteers are a big component of the house building. “If you want to learn how to do something, we’ll teach you how, if you have a willing spirit,” Dinger said. A high school construction class helped with the Brownton and Stewart homes.

Volunteer work also keeps down costs. Habitat, however, has no control over building materials costs.

In the past five years, the cost to build a home has almost doubled from $45,000 to $85,000. “We’re trying to get the cost down to $65,000, so building town homes will help that,” Dinger said.

Money to buy materials comes from donations, grants and fund-raisers. Any government money can only be used to buy lots, install curb and gutter, or pay staff, of which Crow River Habitat are two part-timers.

Rising costs have caused Habitat to raise its income guidelines. “We use to qualify people at 15 percent of the median income. Now, we’re at 30 percent of the median income,” Dinger said. To qualify, income limits for a family of four must be between $23,450 and $33,000.

“The whole idea is to meet that niche that someone else isn’t filling . . . to help the people who fall through the cracks, who don’t make enough to qualify for MHFA,” she said. “We don’t want to compete with those programs. We want to offer something different.”

MHFA is the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Among some of the things the organization does is help people buy their first homes or fix up their existing homes.

Crow River Habitat is the mortgage holder for each home it builds, while the homeowner pays the principal, taxes and insurance, but no interest. It’s important that the homeowner’s monthly debt-income ratio is not more than 40 percent, Dinger said.

So, if a homeowner makes $2,000 a month, that person’s monthly bills shouldn’t be more than $800.

Throughout the home-building, a volunteer mentor works one-on-one with a homeowner, so they “go into the process with their eyes wide open knowing ‘This is my responsibility,’” Dinger said.

Crow River Habitat works hard at driving through that message, she said. “This is the best deal they’re ever going to have and they need to understand that.”

In its 10 years, the agency has yet to foreclose on a home. Statistics, however, say that 10 percent will end in foreclosure, Dinger said. Crow River Habitat understands that sooner or later it will happen.

“We don’t want to put them in over their heads,” she said. “We’re looking for success stories. When they succeed, the organization succeeds and makes it possible to build more homes.”

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