Finding Home: Habitat Repair Programs Help Preserve Affordable Houses

May 19, 2019

Affordable housing efforts across the Charlotte region often focus on building new homes. But the city of Charlotte and surrounding towns increasingly are working to preserve existing housing so it's not lost to gentrification. Habitat for Humanity chapters are partners, through Critical Home Repair programs, that are shifting the organization's focus away from home building and toward repairs.

Last fall the Davidson Town Board approved spending $200,000 to help repair owner-occupied single-family houses on the town's West Side. Gwen Sherrill, 63, was one of the first to get the help.

"He redid my bathroom. And this (is) the most important thing: I had this bathroom and I never used it, never in my life, because when they built it, the commode sunk. So I never used it. I used it, I just used it for a closet," she said, while leading a tour of her house.  

Sherrill has lived for nearly three decades in a small three-bedroom house on Potts Street near downtown Davidson, across the railroad tracks that historically were an economic and social dividing line in town.  After her son passed away years ago, she took in his two kids, and now cares for his grandchildren. Over the years, between working at Walmart and caring for the kids, she couldn't keep up with repairs.

[Related: An Experiment In Denver Aimed At Adding Affordable Housing Quickly]

"So I just did just minor repairs … in order to live here, you know? And then it got to the point where the floors, my bathroom floor it was kind of warped a little bit. So, I say, maybe like three years ago, my kitchen caught on fire, and I wasn't able to replace it right then," Sherrill said.  

Gwen Sherrill has lived in her house since it was built in 1991, but couldn't keep up with major repairs as she raised grandchildren and great grandchildren. A new town program with Our Towns Habitat has helped with repairs.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

Then one day, the town's zoning enforcement officer, Scott Misenheimer, told her about the new town grant program.

FROM HOUSING FUNDS

Davidson is funding repairs through its Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The town requires developers to make at least 12½% of the units in new developments affordable, or to pay into the trust fund. The fund has about $2.4 million right now, and this year is the first the town has used the money on home repairs.

To complete repairs, the town contracted with Our Towns Habitat for Humanity and its Critical Home Repair program. The $200,000 is expected to pay for repairs at six to eight homes this year, said Davidson's affordable housing coordinator, Cindy Reid. Most have already been identified.

"We either receive calls from homeowners, or Habitat does, and then Habitat meets with the homeowner and also brings a contractor to their home and identifies critical repairs," Reid said.

Davidson limits the program to owners who live in their homes and make less than 60 percent of the area median income - or about $47,000 a year.  

HIGH-COST REPAIRS ONLY

The money pays mainly for higher-cost renovations related to health and safety, said Bruce Brown, who runs the Critical Home Repair program for Our Towns Habitat.

"When I walk into a house, the first thing I look for is trip hazards. The second thing I look for is water penetration, or pipes leaking, because any type of water is going to damage the house to the point where it's going to eventually get to the foundation and will fall through, Brown said.

Brown says other major repairs include heating and air condition systems, roofs, plumbing, and accessibility for people with disabilities.

It won't pay for house painting or fancy countertops, he said.

Besides Davidson, Our Towns Habitat also repairs homes elsewhere around north Mecklenburg and Iredell County - 30 a year or more, depending on how much money they raise. Donations come from individual donors, corporations and foundations, and other towns.

HABITAT SHIFTS TO REPAIRS

This focus on home repairs reflects a shift at Habitat chapters across the country over the past decade, said Our Towns Habitat's executive director, Chris Ahearn.

"People think of Habitat and they think about new home construction, which is absolutely one of the ways that we help people find affordable housing," Ahearn said. "But over the years, you know across the whole country, as land has become more expensive and construction costs have been rising, as they are here in the greater Lake Norman area, a lot of Habitat affiliates … have looked at other ways to serve families. And one of the best ways to do that is to help people stay in their homes."

At many Habitat chapters, including Charlotte's, the number of rehabilitations has eclipsed the number of new homes built every year, said Peter Brown of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte.

"It's a substantial part - I would say in terms of net units, it's actually larger than our new home construction program, probably not quite double (the) size" of new home construction," Peter Brown said.  

PRESERVING AFFORDABILITY

Focusing on repairs makes economic sense, he added.

"Maintaining affordable housing stock is critically important, because in the absence of that, the land is so valuable that the homes will probably just be demolished and replaced with something that's not affordable," Peter Brown said. 

Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte will spend about $2.4 million this year to repair 81 homes. The number has been rising steadily over the past decade, from just a handful in 2008 to 77 last year.

About one-third of the money comes from the city of Charlotte, the rest from private donations and grants. The program could grow next year if Mecklenburg County Commissioners approve a proposed $1 million line item in their 2020 budget.  

The average age of the homes repaired in Charlotte is about 60 years, said Charles Monroe, who runs the Critical Home Repair Program at Charlotte Habitat.

"We do some homes that were built in the (19)20s, '30s and '40s. But predominantly we're in some of the larger neighborhoods that were built by some of the big production builders that were here in the 1960s," Monroe said.  

Charlotte Habitat's average critical home repair is about $30,000, he said.

Projects typically benefit older residents trying to stay in their homes. Repairs are free for those making less than 30 percent of the area median income, or about $24,000. Others pay Habitat back, on a sliding scale.

Meanwhile, Habitat's isn't the only repair program in Charlotte. The city office of Housing & Neighborhood Services has its own in-house home repair effort. And other organizations do repairs, helping with everything from energy efficiency and weatherization to accessibility.   

AN ASSET TO PASS ON

In Davidson, Gwen Sherrill's repairs cost about $18,000, including a new roof, kitchen and porch railings. The money is structured as a declining balance loan – with 20 percent forgiven every year. That means as long as she stays in the house for at least five years, the repairs are free. If she sells or rents the house, she'll have to pay the town back for any unforgiven portion of the repair cost.  

Sherrill said she's glad the town is helping lower-income residents stay in their homes.

"It means that they care about their residents, and they want everybody to be able to live happy, free, you know, comfortable," Sherrill said.

And, she said, it means she'll be able to pass her house along to her grandchildren.

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