Affordable housing is scarce, rents continue to climb and an increasing number of people face tough choices over which bills to pay and which to ignore.
So Brett D’Antonio is surprised that more Whidbey residents don’t seek help from one of the most recognizable organizations devoted to making home ownership a reality for the world’s worker bees.
“Not enough people understand how we can help,” says D’Antonio, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Island County. “They think we’re a social service or affiliated with subsidized housing.
“A middle-income person might be eligible for our program.”
“It’s affordable home ownership with affordable loan options.”
During the application process, a person’s need, income, income-to-debt ratio, cost of living, and ability to pay a home’s mortgage, taxes, utilities, insurance and maintenance are accessed, along with other considerations.
On average, the application and approval process take about one month.
“We don’t define what a family is,” D’Antonio added. “We’ve built for single people, young couples just getting their start and older people nearing retirement.”
First mortgage purchase prices of homes range between $90,000 to $145,000 and monthly payments range between $400 to $650.
Habitat partners with Saratoga Community Housing, a community land trust, to acquire property. Saratoga retains ownership of the property and leases it to homeowners for a minimal amount.
Construction costs are kept low with donations or reduced prices of building supplies and appliances from many partner stores and contractors.
Profits from Habitat’s two Whidbey used furniture and building supply stores in Oak Harbor and Freeland also help.
Each house takes between four-to-six months to build, using a two-person paid construction staff and a group of dependable, devoted volunteers. Service organizations, local businesses and the Navy also regularly volunteer.
The first Habitat multi-family project, located near Skagit Valley College in Oak Harbor, is slated for dedication soon. The 1,500-square foot townhouses feature high ceilings, open first floors and small decks with expansive views of the marina.
“Lots of rain, lots of wind, and lots of cold,” is how volunteer Dean Faris summed up the winter construction at the townhouse site. “We were out here even in 20-degree weather, but it’s all come together now.”
Two families of three people will occupy the two units.
Like others who move into Habitat houses, mortgage payments will be less than the current $1,400 average home rental cost of Island County.
From 2009 to 2015, rents increased 12 percent to nearly 20 percent from year to year while median incomes rose 4 percent to 6 percent from year to year, according to Department of Commerce charts used in a Habitat presentation.
More residents pay beyond the standard “affordable” rent recommendation of 30 percent of their gross income, said Joanne Pelant with Island County Housing Services.
It’s not uncommon these days for rent to suck 50 percent or more out of paychecks from residents working minimum wage to $15/an hour or above jobs, Pelant said.
The 50 percent or above percentage is known as “extremely cost-burdened.”
“Many households here are paying 50, 60, even 70 percent of their wages toward rent,” said Pelant. “They live in this constant state of despair and lack of hope.”
Home equity is the largest single source of household wealth for most Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Various studies show home ownership leads to better health, greater educational achievements and a sense of stability, pride and community investment.
Melissa Brown can attest to the benefits.
In less than two years, she went from living in a shelter with two young children to receiving the key to her Oak Harbor Crosby Commons neighborhood home on Dec. 28, 2015.
“Knowing that I’ve accomplished a goal I’ve had for a very long time, and that I have stability, has lifted a huge burden off my shoulders,” Brown said.
Her two-story three-bedroom house means separate bedrooms for the kids and lots of space for dinner gatherings with friends and family, something she could never do in her tiny apartment.
The 500 hours of “sweat equity” required by Habitat homeowners wasn’t easy to fit in around her full-time job and the kids, admitted Brown, a single mother.
“If you haven’t done your hours, you can’t move in,” she said. “So I was at the construction site every Friday afternoon after work and Saturdays.”
She also volunteered at Habitat stores and completed home ownership classes, which all count toward sweat equity hours. Additionally, friends and family of the home buyer can contribute up to 250 hours of hammer time toward the 500-hour requirement.
Mary Corella, director of Habitat’s Homebuyer Services, often holds evening informational meetings to explain the program and give an overview of the application process.
Prospective buyers must attend a meeting in order to receive an application.
Last month, Corella told an Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce gathering that there’s a misconception about who buys and lives in a Habitat house.
Flashing up a slide of five people dressed in bright volunteer t-shirts, she explained that all are Habitat homeowners.
“One is a social worker, another is bookkeeper on the base. We have a restaurant manager, a non-profit employee and paralegal for the Island County Prosecutor,” Corella said.
Since 1998, 55 families have moved into local Habitat homes, including 90 children.
Of the 55 houses, 44 were new construction and 11 renovated. Most are in the Oak Harbor area with others built in Freeland, Coupeville area, South Whidbey and one on Camano Island.
Most are single-family three-bedroom homes built with energy-efficient appliances and heating.
However, to meet the region’s growth spurt, townhouses and small housing projects are in the works, including Heron Park Townhomes in Langley which will consist of four buildings with eight units.
Island County Habitat also hopes to increase the number of houses it builds next year with construction help form AmericaCorp.
Qualifying for the program generally requires earning between 30 to 60 percent of the area’s median income.
Using Island County’s median income of $66,000, that means a family of three needs to earn a minimum of $22,500 and a maximum of $35,900.
The range of income for a family of four is between $24,300 to $39,850.
However, since income requirements change, D’Antonio recommends people discuss eligibility with Habitat staff before deciding for themselves that they won’t qualify.
“Someone you know might live in a Habitat house,” he said. “And they probably didn’t think they ever would, or could.”
• For more information on Habitat for Humanity of Island County homeownershop program, contact Mary Corella, director of Homebuyer Services, 306-679-9444 or mary@islandcounty habitat.com. During Habitat’s National Women Build week, women are encouraged to work on the Freeland Habitat house under construction on May 12-13. Tools are provided and skills taught. Call 360-679-9444. www.IslandCountyHabitat.org