Habitat struggles with lack of land

Volunteers plentiful, but parcels are rare

Howard County

February 10, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Habitat for Humanity volunteers know it takes a stroke of good luck to find reasonably priced property in land-scarce Howard County.

They're hoping lightning strikes twice, and soon.

The local affiliate of an international organization that builds houses for families in need, Habitat for Humanity of Howard County, purchased its first property last year, helped by a confluence of happy circumstances.

Now that leaders expect to begin building that house in a few months - maybe by April - they're preparing for a second foray into the county's difficult land market.

They have a family selected for the house that they'll build on the parcel they hope to find. If some landowners happen to have, say, an eighth of an acre they wouldn't mind parting with for a reduced rate, Habitat officials would be thrilled.

They're trying to buy the land within four months and know it's a tall order.

"We have an abundance of interested and eligible families. I know we won't have trouble finding volunteers to help construct, we are getting donations and I don't think we'll have trouble financing the construction of the house," said Bob Warner, vice president of the group's board of directors, naming key items on the to-do list. "But it's the acquisition of sites that's the really big problem, both because of the scarcity of land and its expense.

"There's no cheap land in Howard County."

Neil Gaffney, deputy administrator of the county housing department, which deals with the same problem, said there's a simple, mathematical explanation: Three-quarters of the houses that can be built on Howard's land have been built. And the one-quarter that remain? About half of those residences are in the planning stages.

"There ain't much left," Gaffney said. "If you can find a piece of land that's unbuilt, that doesn't have building permits ... that's something you need to jump on."

Habitat affiliates rely on help from the community, a factor that takes on more importance when the chapter has the bad luck to be in an area where house-building is a highly expensive proposition.

Designed to be simple yet well-constructed, Habitat houses in the United States cost about $48,000, on average. But buyers would be hard-pressed to find the land alone for that price in Howard. The county's Habitat leaders expect their first house to cost $130,000 or $140,000, including the property. The quarter-acre lot on which it will stand cost $52,000.

Habitat officials have options that a normal developer doesn't. Anyone who writes a check for the cause gets a tax write-off.

"Maybe an affluent family wants to donate some land," suggested Kimberly Moore, a spokeswoman for Habitat for Humanity International in Georgia, whose affiliates have built about 120,000 houses worldwide.

For their first land purchase, the Howard County Habitat organizers had a grant from the state's affordable housing trust. They're considering their financing options this time and are planning fund-raisers.

Vicky Green, president of the group's board of directors, is hoping for the best. She's set high goals for the year. She wants to bring in a third parcel, too.

People were surprised when she helped start the group in 2000 - comfortable Howard County couldn't have housing problems, they said - but Green said they weren't seeing the full picture. It's not simply an issue of leaky roofs and rickety stairs. It's workers who must commute 30, 40, 50 miles to Howard because they can't afford a house in the county. It's families crowded into places much too small.

"The need is here - it really is here," said Green.

The Habitat affiliate's first house, which could be finished by Christmas, is slated for a family of 11 now packed into a three-bedroom rental duplex. A family of seven living an apartment will move into the house that will be built on the hoped-for second parcel.

The families will help build their houses with other volunteers and will buy the place at cost with an interest-free loan, payable in monthly installments to Habitat.

"The idea is to not give something to families but to help them help themselves," said Warner, who is also chairman of the group's site selection committee.

Group leaders are aiming to eventually build three to five houses a year, one at a time. It's a few drips in the bucket of need, but Gaffney believes even a single affordable place makes a difference.

"If you're the person who moves into that home," the county housing official said of Habitat's work, "they've had a tremendous impact."

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