Habitat for Humanity looking for families in need
VERGENNES — Habitat for Humanity of Addison County is nearing the finishing line for its latest project, a new three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot home in the Booth Woods development in Vergennes. A family of five has agreed to pay $175,000 for the place.
Now the organization, which secures affordable housing for families of modest means, is gearing up to find some neighbors for that family, as its next home will be built nearby.
But finding candidate families for the next home remains difficult even as Vermont’s and Addison County’s lack of affordable and workforce housing continues to make headlines.
“This has been constant for 22 years, as long as we’ve been here. We always are looking for a family,” said Margaret Carothers, Habitat’s volunteer office manager. “Whatever we do we can’t seem to figure out how to reach our target audience.”
Eventually, Habitat will build four homes on the north side of the wooded Booth Woods entry road, all on lots it bought for a total of $25,000 in 2018.
Ideally, according to Habitat volunteer office manager Margaret Carothers, the organization would like to identify its next family before or soon after a foundation is poured in the next month or two for what will be its 14th home over the past two decades.
“We want to build a house that’s just right for the family,” said Carothers, who helped found Habitat’s local branch in 1999. “If you’ve got handicapped people, you want to make the doors wider. If you’ve got people who can’t do stairs, we want to make sure to build a one-floor house.”
Finding that family is an annual challenge, however.
Habitat is restricted by its funding — notably grants from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board as well as donations — to work with applicants in a targeted income range of between 50% and 80% of the area median income, as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Those income limits ran in 2021 from $33,500 to $56,360 for a family of three, and up to $55,250 to $88,400 for a family of eight.
“We’re always looking for families, and the problem is to afford our houses you have to be in a fairly narrow slice of income,” Carothers said.
Carothers acknowledged that income must be “below 80% of median for your size of family, but not so far below that you can’t afford $850 a month for housing.”
The good news, she adds, is that Habitat calculates that $850, or whatever number is figured to be right for the applicant, factors in utilities (that are inexpensive due to rooftop solar panels) and insurance, as well as loan payments. And those loan payments are interest-free, thanks to Habitat.
Habitat homeowners agree the end result is an affordable home.
Middlebury resident Robin Bentley, a Habitat homeowner for more than a decade, is a member of two Habitat families featured on a promotional video on the nonprofit’s website. (The video may be viewed at youtu.be/plokp98FKss.)
“Habitat thinks of everything. They think of the affordability for the heat and the month-to-month bills,” said Bentley, who describes herself as a single mother of two. “They know it’s a modest-income family, so everything from the property taxes to the heating bills are factored into it. And they never put anybody into a house that they can’t afford.”
There are resale limitations placed on the properties. Carothers said families can’t take advantage of the Habitat discount and then “get rich quick” when the market appreciates.
If circumstances change and they wish to move on, they must resell to Habitat, their investment is returned, and they receive 25% of the property’s increased market value. Habitat then turns around and finds a new family in need of an affordable home, she said.
Successful applicants must have steady incomes and good references.
According to Habitat for Humanity of Addison County’s website (addisonhabitat.org), “Applicants must demonstrate a stable employment history and evidence of responsible money management,” and Habitat will verify employment, income and bank balances; get statements from current and previous landlords; and perform a credit check.
Once a family is accepted for a home, its members are also expected to contribute 200 hours of labor. According to Bentley that requirement was rewarding, even though she started out knowing nothing about construction.
“Everyone was patient with me and made it an unbelievable experience,” she said. “So now if something breaks I absolutely can fix it.”
Another woman, a member of a family of five who was not identified in the video, spoke of the benefits of the work mandate.
“I love everything about this house. I’m very proud of the work that we put into the house and that we have a home for my children,” she said. “It’s one home for the rest of our lives.”
The quality of the homes is not in question, Carothers said. They are designed by students in an architecture course at Middlebury College taught by John McLeod, a founding partner of McLeod Kredell Architects in Middlebury.
Professional builders oversee construction, and Carothers said the house designs have won awards from the American Institute of Architects.
Despite all this, Habitat has yet to find a family for its next home in Vergennes.
The organization is currently reaching out through local schools and churches, and is also working with Middlebury College in hopes of finding a staff member who might meet the criteria, possibly one commuting from New York state.
Past that, Carothers said, maybe word of mouth will work.
Certainly, Bentley would recommend her peers look into Habitat.
“The bottom line is Habitat is for hard-working people, you have to have a job, who really want to have a home for their kids,” Bentley said, adding, “You can pay your bills and still have money to live, and that’s very important.”
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