After 40-plus years building houses hammer-in-hand with qualifying homeowners, Habitat for Humanity recently launched its first national advocacy campaign to make homes in general more affordable, and the Bulloch County affiliate is getting some recognition for its efforts in this direction.
The official launch of the Cost of Home campaign was June 12. On Friday, June 14, Marcus Toole, community relations coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County, and a few volunteers occupied corners around the intersection of Statesboro’s four Main Streets with signs about how homes should be affordable. Then a Habitat International spokesperson came to town Thursday and met with the volunteer team formed for Statesboro’s city-sponsored Georgia Initiative for Community Housing, or GICH, application.
“What we’re trying to do is say the cost of home should not be anywhere near half your income, and if you’re paying more than half your income, you’re paying way more than what ought to be the cost of your home,” Toole said that day on the corner.
He was holding a sign that, on one side, said pretty much that very thing. On the other side was written, “Help make the #CostOfHome something we can all afford.”
Habitat sites statistics that one in six American households spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, whether in rent or mortgage payments.
“And when people do that they can’t afford healthy food, they can’t afford the best education for their kids, they can’t afford health care,” Toole said. “Their house eats up their income from everything else, and that’s bad for them, that’s bad for the economy, that’s bad for society.”
Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County, Toole announced this week, is so far the only Georgia affiliate to receive a Cost of Home grant for advocacy efforts. The $15,000 grant will enable him to do more advocacy work over the next year while the local affiliate becomes “sort of the poster child of the Cost of Home program for the state of Georgia,” he said.
The campaign’s efforts aim at four primary areas of policy, said Anne Shaffer Myers, advocacy campaigns director with the international Habitat for Humanity organization.
These policy areas are increasing the supply and preservation of affordable housing, developing and expanding access to “communities of opportunity,” increasing equitable access to credit, and optimizing land use for affordable homes. The “communities of opportunity” concept outlined at www.habitat.org can involve assistance for home repair and weatherization, land banks for redevelopment of abandoned properties and tax relief programs.
“This is our first national advocacy campaign, and it just launched last week, so it’s continuing to build momentum, but it’s truly already a national movement, and so we’re happy for Habitat Bulloch County to be part of that, we’re happy to be supporting their efforts, and we’re happy to be learning from their efforts,” Myers said.
After attending a luncheon Thursday in Savannah with Habitat affiliates from across Georgia, she visited Statesboro and accompanied Toole to the GICH team meeting. Mayor Jonathan McCollar led the meeting as the city prepares to apply for the GICH, a program operated by the University of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Five communities are chosen each year to enter the three-year program and develop housing plans that give them priority for certain grant and loan programs.
“I’m truly impressed when a community has so many different stakeholders coming together to work on addressing the need for home affordability, and so here in the room tonight we had members from the real estate sector, from health care, from education, from development, from the nonprofit sector and the mayor leading the charge, and that’s a good recipe for success,” Myers said.
She is based in Washington, D.C., where Habitat operates a government relations office, but the organization’s world headquarters is in Georgia, with offices in Americus and Atlanta. Founded in Georgia in the 1970s as a Christian housing ministry, Habitat now has affiliates in all 50 states and about 70 countries.
The Bulloch County affiliate recently launched construction of the 57th local Habitat house with a homeowner to-be and her children, the same week the owner of House 54 received her keys. Habitat homeowners invest “sweat equity,” including labor in their own homes’ construction, and then make monthly payments on interest-free, discounted mortgages.
The organization isn’t changing this approach, but is adding advocacy for policy and societal changes.
“It is a new space for us at Habitat that now we’re not only leveraging our hammers in building homes but we’re working toward addressing the great housing challenge that we see today by being able to raise our voices as well,” Myers said. “We realize that the need is far too great, that we can’t build ourselves out of this problem alone.”
So far 250 Habitat affiliates and state organizations covering 40 states have joined the Cost of Home effort, she said. But Habitat has about 1,200 affiliates, so not all are aboard yet.
Creek project concerns
One focus of advocacy by the Bulloch affiliate, Toole said, will be neighborhoods affected by Statesboro’s Creek on the Blue Mile project. With some approved state funding, this plan seeks to create a lagoon or lake west of South College Street and then develop a creek with park features eastward across South Main Street.
“We unequivocally support the lake and the Blue Mile Creek project, but we are also very aware that as soon as that lake is constructed, all that low-cost, low-income housing that’s around Mikell Street and Institute Street and that part of Statesboro is going to be lake-front property right next to what amounts to being a state park, and that land is going to become a lot more valuable,” he said.
So, Habitat wants to make sure that any affordable housing lost to the project is replaced with as good or better, low-cost, single-unit housing as nearby as possible, and not across town, Toole said. He said he will also advocate for the city and county to “grandfather in” current homeowners in the area at current tax values so that they are not priced out of their homes by rising taxes.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.