By Neil Cotiaux
It’s a busy spring for the volunteers and staff of Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County: an all-female crew at a Women Build event sheathing walls and setting trusses, closings on the final three properties in its Grace Point neighborhood off White Horse Road, and the dedication of the nonprofit’s 350th home.
But beyond the sounds of construction and out of range of photo-ops, there’s a quieter, more methodical task at hand.
With a growing number of families who earn 30 percent to 60 percent of median area income needing affordable housing and with “down-ladder” demand for such housing increasing among those making 60 percent to 120 percent of the median, the local Habitat chapter needs to “step up our game for the community,” believes Monroe Free, its president and CEO.
In Greenville County, the median sales price of a home stood at $180,000, a 13 percent year-over-year increase, said ATTOM Data Solutions, a property database firm, in its first-quarter 2018 U.S. Home Affordability Report. At 3 percent down and with a 28 percent debt-to-income ratio, the income needed to buy a home in Greenville County was $48,288, making the county one of 304 in which housing was not affordable for average wage earners.
Last year, the average income of a Habitat family was $22,000, Free said. “The lady who cut my hair … that’s the group we’re going to always be after,” he emphasized.
Habitat Greenville’s next Strategy Plan, effective July 1 with the start of its fiscal year, commits the nonprofit to serving 300 families with affordable housing through FY 2023, more than double the 144 families served by the current plan.
But with land becoming scarcer and more costly, the cost of public infrastructure and supplies rising, and federal dollars diminishing, Free and his staff know they’ll have to wring more value from their finances.
That, in turn, has prompted a series of initiatives within the new five-year plan to achieve the greatest cost efficiencies possible.
“In some ways, it’s a perfect storm for Habitat,” Free said. “We have to dig a little deeper and think a little harder to help the families.”
Tweaking the blueprint
As part of Habitat’s new game plan, everything from the kinds of homes being built to Habitat’s retail stores is under scrutiny.
The plan calls for getting 300 families into housing by building 80 new homes and by rehabbing, weatherizing, and repairing 220 existing ones.
In a first, Free has asked his staff to be ready to build some multifamily housing within the first 24 months of the plan.
By placing some families on one lot in one structure, multifamily housing addresses the rising costs that Habitat is trying to overcome. And by choosing the right site, a multifamily approach also enables Habitat to place a cluster of low-wage earners close to mass transit. “We need to congregate our people near transportation systems,” Free said.
In another first, the nonprofit is starting to prefabricate building materials off-site.
A build site is “less controlled” and more prone to mistakes, Free noted. By prefabbing at a warehouse, Habitat will “be able to buy material in bulk for a larger number of houses” and reduce waste, saving as much as 8 percent in construction costs based on the experience of a program at Habitat’s Raleigh, N.C., affiliate, Free said.
“Sticks and bricks cost is about $72,000” per home, he added.
To help tame rising infrastructure costs — road, water, sewer — the Strategy Plan calls for a new capital campaign. A recent federal grant covers only one-fifth of Habitat’s current infrastructure costs, Free said.
The new campaign will be conducted independently of other fundraising. On its last Form 990, Habitat reported raising more than $1.8 million in contributions and government grants, a 12-month record.
In December, Habitat Greenville opened a second ReStore at 3033 Wade Hampton Blvd. The store accepts donations of furniture, home accessories, appliances, and other items and sells them to the public at discount, with the proceeds used to help fund Habitat’s operations.
After a slow start, the outlet is now “exceeding our expectations,” Free said. To accelerate cash flow, Habitat will move its other ReStore, at Pelham Pointe in Simpsonville, to a new location on Woodruff Road, a move expected to increase drive-by traffic count by 35,000.
In addition to its raft of new initiatives, Habitat Greenville will continue its recent practice of placing zero-percent mortgages on the books of two of its partners, SC Telco Federal Credit Union and Carolina Foothills FCU, instead of booking mortgages in-house.
The change, which Free suggested several years ago in a break with the traditional Habitat model, provides the nonprofit with large chunks of cash at closing rather than recouping the sales price over the life of the loan.
At closing, “We give them 100 percent of each mortgage,” said Steve Harkins, SC Telco’s president and CEO. “It’s a commitment to help improve the community.” Further, Habitat no longer has to deal with mortgage servicing.
At Carolina Foothills, a total of $1.4 million in Habitat mortgages has been booked so far and “we’ll possibly put more in” when the current $2 million cap on them is reached, said Scott Weaver, president and CEO.
With a foreclosure rate of 0.45 percent, “We’re a pretty safe investment for them,” Free said, with the up-front cash received mostly applied to land and infrastructure.
Bradley Nivens wishes Habitat Greenville all the best as it begins the next five years of its mission.
Determined not to buy a home until he was ready, Nivens kicked his drug habit, cleaned up his debt, finalized a divorce, participated in 25 hours of required homebuyer education, and worked alongside Habitat volunteers building a home at Grace Point.
“Habitat actually set it up with me to do my closing exactly five years from being clean,” he said.
Nivens, 41, pays off his monthly $493, no-interest mortgage through a job at another nonprofit. He remarried after becoming “more secure and self-confident,” he said, and lets his two autistic sons play inside a fence built by Habitat.
A 2016 study reported that after moving in, 96 percent of Habitat homeowners felt their families were more stable, 70 percent had completed a training or degree program, and 67 percent said their children’s grades had improved.
“They’re just such courageous and strong people,” Free said of the “working poor” who will be helped by Habitat’s redoubled commitment to affordable housing.