By Nicholas K. Geranios
SPOKANE, Wash. — The national housing slump is having an effect on Habitat for Humanity, as the charity is spending more time rehabbing existing homes these days.
Habitat for Humanity is best known for building new homes for low-income people. But last year, 17 percent of its projects involved rehabilitation work on existing homes. That was up from 12 percent just two years before.
“When the housing crisis started in many communities, there was excess housing stock,” said Sue Henderson, vice president of U.S. operations for Habitat for Humanity International, based in Atlanta.
“It made sense for Habitat to look at buying and renovating foreclosed properties and put them back into service.”
Not just foreclosed properties. Habitat also updates and weatherizes existing homes, such as the one owned by Pier Bridges of Spokane.
Habitat is in the process of updating the rundown kitchen and floors of her modest home in northeast Spokane.
“It’s beautiful,” Bridges said as she studied the cherry wood-colored flooring in her living room.
Nearby, Habitat volunteer Tom Nelson was replacing a battered interior door.
Bridges, a bus driver for Spokane Transit, has lived in the house for 14 years, and expected the work to be done in about two weeks.
The rehabilitation work primarily is not cosmetic.
“The idea is to take care of problems that threaten the health or safety of the homeowner,” said Katrina Boyer, a Habitat official in nearby Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
They recently completed a project to repair the sagging outdoor deck of a home. Habitat for Humanity provided the labor for the work, while the homeowner must pay back the cost of materials over the next two years.
Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976 and has built more than 500,000 homes around the world.
Homeowners usually are expected to put about 500 hours of “sweat equity” into their own or other project homes, although this amount may vary by location. Former President Jimmy Carter became involved with Habitat for Humanity in 1984.
Boyer said many Habitat clients no longer could afford to build new homes, so the Coeur d’Alene chapter started doing rehabs last summer.
“We started doing exterior repairs like paint, yard work, landscaping,” she said. They also do weatherization and projects to make homes handicapped accessible, she said.
On the national level, Habitat for Humanity started doing some rehab work about a decade ago, Henderson said.
At that time, the goal was to repair foreclosed or abandoned homes in a neighborhood where the group also was building new homes, as a way to preserve the value of the new construction, she said.
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“It was a holistic approach to stabilization of neighborhoods,” she said.
Under that system, Habitat for Humanity takes title to an abandoned home, fixes it up, and then sells to a client family, she said.
The percentage of rehabs rose from 12 percent in fiscal 2009 to 15 percent in fiscal 2010 to 17 percent last year, she said. That meant that out of 9,323 families served by Habitat for Humanity last year, 1,603 families received a rehab project, she said.
Michone Preston, head of Habitat for Humanity’s Spokane chapter, said money from the U.S. Department of Energy and from the Home Depot Foundation is paying for some work to make existing homes more energy efficient.
This year, the Spokane chapter is doing energy efficiency upgrades on 60 to 80 homes, while doing other rehab projects on six to 10 homes. They plan to build 12 to 14 new homes, Preston said.
“We generally build a cluster of them at a time,” she said.
The Spokane chapter has not bought foreclosed homes.
“There is a lot of need,” Preston said, “in our community for brand new homes.”