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Jimmy Carter Hammers at Michigan’s Affordable Housing Problem

But state Legislature’s inaction means severe shortages will persist

September 16, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Habitat for Humanity

Former President Jimmy Carter will lead a volunteer effort to build 220 affordable homes in 61 Michigan counties next June.

Responding to Michigan’s growing need for affordable housing, the faith-based organization Habitat for Humanity International announced that next June it will coordinate the construction of approximately 220 quality houses in the state that are modestly priced. Reflecting the ubiquity of the state’s affordable housing shortage, the intense weeklong marathon of home building occurs simultaneously in 61 of Michigan’s 83 counties and will be powered by hammer-swinging volunteers, housing activists, and future residents of the new structures.

Habitat for Humanity said the project will begin on June 19, 2005 and focus very heavily on two of the state’s most troubled cities, Benton Harbor and Detroit. In a taped message former President Jimmy Carter, the leader of Habitat’s signature program, explained why the two cities are receiving special attention.

“The cities of Benton Harbor and Detroit face many challenges,” Mr. Carter said. “Both communities suffer from social and economic tension and decaying neighborhoods. Both have areas people would rather drive around than drive through. There are good people in Benton Harbor and Detroit who have lost hope and need our help.”

Poverty and unemployment rates in both cities are extremely high; last summer Benton Harbor was the scene of rioting that reflected deep racial tensions between city residents and local police. But experts say that Michigan’s affordable housing shortage extends far beyond the two cities and their particularly desperate demographics, and note that the state’s continued inaction on the problem slows urban revitalization efforts and, by extension, also worsens the state’s severe sprawl problem.

Widespread Problem, Little State Response
One study, by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, estimates that 18 percent of the state’s 3.8 million households are “housing needy,” which means they live in dwellings that are overcrowded, severely deteriorated, or too expensive for them. A recent study by the National Association of Counties and the National Housing Conference found that many workers living in metropolitan Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Saginaw, and Lansing don’t earn enough to own homes in the communities where they work. This is true, the report said, even though these workers serve as elementary school teachers, police officers, practical nurses, or in other professional positions. And a federal study places Michigan near last place in two key measures of state spending for affordable housing.  

Despite such findings and last year’s recommendation by the bi-partisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council that the state strongly support affordable housing to revitalize the state’s many troubled cities, the Republican-led state Legislature is stalled on the issue. Republican State Representative Jerry Kooiman, cosponsor of legislation to establish the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund, said this spring that he hoped to see action on his bill before the summer recess. He and Republican State Senator Tony Stamas introduced twin bills in their respective chambers in May of 2003.

Their proposals would establish a $25 million fund to help people with limited incomes buy or rent quality housing. Although they have attracted strong support from fellow Republicans such as State Senator Patty Birkholz of Saugatuck and State Representatives Joanne Voorhees and Barb Vander Veen of, respectively, Wyoming and Allendale, the relevant House and Senate committees have yet to schedule hearings on the bills.

With affordable housing legislative proposals languishing in Lansing, Habitat for Humanity will make only a small dent in Michigan’s formidable affordable housing problem. Mr. Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, will appear in both Detroit and Benton Harbor during the week of non-stop digging, sawing, and pounding, known formally as the Jimmy Carter Work Project, in order to attract more attention to it.

The organization’s first-ever statewide event in Michigan, it will likely include all of its 85 affiliates across the state and attract 3,000 volunteers from all walks of life. Habitat officials say they hope the week will raise awareness about the pressing need for affordable housing throughout Michigan.

Sweat Equity, No-Interest Loans
Habitat officials emphasize that “building with” as opposed to “building for” people in need of affordable housing is central to the organization’s practical approach. Families interested in owning a Habitat home must navigate a thorough application and screening process and then pay for their modest-sized homes in two ways: 300 hours of sweat equity devoted to their home’s construction, and a monthly, no-interest mortgage payment, typically around $275, for an average of 20 years.

A “family selection” committee reviews each application. The committee considers work history, income, and debts; total household income may not exceed half of the median income of the county the family lives in. The selection process also includes a visit to the family’s current home to confirm that members are living in substandard housing, meaning housing that is overcrowded, in violation of building or health codes, fails to meet handicapped accessibility requirements, or costs too much.

Jerry Hollister, Habitat for Humanity Michigan’s director of special events, says that the program emphasizes personal responsibility.

“Habitat is designed to give families in need a hand up, not a handout.” Mr. Hollister said. “Their sweat equity helps to keep the costs of homes low, making mortgages very affordable. Habitat homeowners often mentor or volunteer to help other families. And keep in mind that, like all homeowners, Habitat homeowners pay taxes. In 2002, Habitat’s homeowners in Michigan paid more than $1.2 million in property taxes.”

“Studies show that in Habitat homes,” Mr. Hollister continued, “domestic violence drops, families go on to receive additional education, and families report less sickness, an increase in income, and higher grades in school for their children.”

A Sense of Community
Amy Morris, a New York City Habitat homeowner, offers a persuasive example of how Habitat creates a genuine sense of community and unity. In 2000 she moved into a house built by the Jimmy Carter Work Project. She said it changed her family’s life for the better.

“Everyone that was here had a humble sense of wanting to give, just for the fact of doing it and not getting anything in return,” Ms. Morris said in an interview with the organization’s magazine, Habitat World. “That’s what I liked about Habitat, that sense of community. People want the same things — good schools for the kids, a decent living. People that work for something are going to maintain it.”

Since its founding in 1976, Habitat for Humanity International has built or renovated more than 175,000 homes in 3,000 communities in over 100 nations. The Jimmy Carter Work Project was launched in 1984 when President and Mrs. Carter renovated a 6-story, 19 unit building in New York City. This coming October 24th through 29th, the Carter branch of Habitat for Humanity will host an estimated 4,000 volunteers in Vera Cruz and Puebla, Mexico, where they will build 150 homes.

Charlene Crowell, a journalist and broadcaster, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute's regional office in Lansing and leads the Institute’s Detroit and statewide transportation projects. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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