Foreclosures Mean Opportunity for Habitat Charity

By: Steve Karnowski
By: Steve Karnowski


MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The foreclosure crisis that has forced thousands of families from their homes has given something good to the nation's best-known housing charity: Cheap properties for sale in communities around the country.

Some Habitat for Humanity chapters have seized buying opportunities in neighborhoods affected by the mortgage meltdown, snapping up scores of empty lots and unoccupied homes - some for as little as half price.

"The down real estate market is a wonderful opportunity for all Habitats," said Gage Yager, executive director of Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, Texas. "As prices drop, we have the opportunity to acquire at prices that just weren't available a few years ago."

In the Minneapolis area and elsewhere, the charity that offers affordable housing to low-income families is buying foreclosed homes and using volunteers to renovate them. If that's not practical, the houses are torn down to make way for new dwellings. In some cities, Habitat is even buying parts of subdivisions that developers couldn't afford to finish.

Habitat officials don't see themselves as capitalizing on the misfortune of others. They say putting families into affordable Habitat homes is much better than allowing properties to remain vacant or letting slumlords grab them.

"We're stepping up to the plate to provide some viable solutions to the housing crisis," said Sharon Rolenc, a spokeswoman for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. She said vacant homes can drive up crime and reduce the value of neighboring property.

Roger Schwierjohn, president and CEO of the Habitat chapter in Phoenix, said the local real estate market has long attracted outside investors who bid up land and home prices without adding any value.

"If they fall by the wayside, so be it," he said. "What we try to do is provide value and access to home ownership to families that would otherwise not be able to afford it."

An official with Americus, Ga.-based Habitat for Humanity International said the extent to which local affiliates take advantage of foreclosures depends on how much money they have.

In Fort Worth, for instance, the local chapter is negotiating to buy part of a 160-lot subdivision that a developer left unfinished. Yager said the plan is to purchase 50 of the remaining 100 vacant lots and put single-family homes on them.

Yager declined to say how much he expects to save because his group is still negotiating. But he said the Fort Worth market for such lots has dropped around 30 percent to 40 percent since the height of the real estate boom.

In nearby Dallas, another Habitat affiliate has picked up about 150 lots at a roughly 50 percent discount as developers dump inexpensive lots in the city's southern neighborhoods to focus on more profitable areas to the north.

The Habitat affiliate in Phoenix had struggled in recent years to find affordable land. But it is closing in on a deal to complete a 20-home development abandoned by a company that went bankrupt. Habitat expects to buy 14 unfinished lots for around half price.

In Milwaukee, the city is buying condo units in one large complex - many of them in foreclosure - and then selling them to Habitat for about $5,000. Habitat volunteers renovate them, and the group sells them to clients for $25,000.

Legislation working its way through Congress might help Habitat and nonprofit housing agencies take even greater advantage of bargains. One bill would send $15 billion to the hardest-hit states for the purchase and improvement of foreclosed property. States could then make those properties available to nonprofits such as Habitat. However, the Bush administration has threatened a veto.

Habitat's work makes a difference in the lives of people like Yenenes Tezgera and her family, who will move into a new home in St. Paul soon after putting in an estimated 400 hours of work on Habitat projects in the area. She and her husband have a 17-month-old boy and another child on the way.

Tezgera is an Ethiopian immigrant who works as a health care assistant. Her husband, a newer arrival who's still learning English, is a stay-at-home father. She said they couldn't afford a home without Habitat.

"This is a big deal for us," Tezgera said. "This is our dream come true in America."

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On the Net:

Habitat for Humanity International: http://www.habitat.org

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