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Housing starts

Effective Compassion | Charity helps families begin new lives in low-cost homes

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

FLINT, Mich. - Michael Moore buffs know Flint, Mich., as the setting of his 1989 documentary, Roger and Me, which criticized former General Motors CEO Roger Smith for closing several plants and cutting thousands of jobs in the birthplace of the world's largest automaker. Since the film's production, the Flint GM payroll has plummeted from 50,000 to 15,000, while the population has dropped from about 141,000 in 1900 to 124,000 in 2000.

Now, community leaders like Genesee County Habitat for Humanity hope to spur a comeback by cleaning up abandoned properties, constructing new buildings, and driving away crime. For 16 years, the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International has constructed affordable houses and offered 20-year, no-interest mortgages.

One month ago, Genesee Habitat hosted both a dedication ceremony for its 42nd home (pictured) and, blocks away in the same Flint neighborhood, a groundbreaking ceremony for its 43rd. Youth volunteers from Deerfield Holy Cross Catholic Church in Chicago, Ill., donned matching white hardhats and green T-shirts to congratulate the new homeowner, 34-year-old Trina Sanders, and her children, Michael, 13, Olivia, 10, and Destiny, 8. "It's like a dream come true," said Sanders, who had been squeezing her family into one bedroom at her mother's house while working as director of the local YWCA's childcare center.

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The dream followed a nightmare that began during her third pregnancy, when the father of her children surprised a burglar in their home and was murdered. The family then moved seven times. Trina didn't think a new home was a possibility-"stuff like that only happens on TV"-but in April, 2005, a year after she applied, Habitat approved her for the program.

Aside from an uninstalled bathroom mirror, toilet seat, and several closet doors, the cozy ranch home on a 100-by-90-foot plot was finished last month, complete with a refrigerator and dishwasher donated by Whirlpool Corporation. The Sanders kids hustled from room to empty room and looked out the windows at their new, spacious domain. The Sanders' pastor, who had come in suit and tie to give the dedication prayer, sat in the shade of the side porch until the ceremony began. Posing with her children, Trina received a keychain, cookbook, and Contemporary English Bible.

Habitat relies on churches to supply the armies of volunteers who build homes for people like the Sanders family. Founded in 1976 as an evangelical charity, the international nonprofit has eased into a more interfaith mindset. Margaret and Jeffrey Kato, who run the Genesee affiliate, bring their Catholic faith to the program, but staff members have freedom to abstain from religious activities. Forty Catholic kids helped on the Sanders home, hammering, measuring, and sawing the new house under a construction manager's direction, while battling heat and humidity.

For Gina Storti, 17, meeting the families and seeing the looks on their faces was a reward well worth the trouble of turning and re-turning rock-hard dirt and laying 89 barrels of topsoil. Days of hard labor-including the difficult task of setting an I-beam in place-had sealed a close bond between volunteers and family members. Tempers sometimes flared among the supervisors who argued over construction problems.

After the house dedication, volunteers drove down the street for the groundbreaking ceremony. Margaret Kato helped Vanessa Buford, a single mother suffering from rickets, climb onto the floorboards, along with her two teenage daughters, Jamila and Shanae. Her pastor, a Baptist, prayed over the land, and Catholics bowed their heads.

The three- or four-bedroom ranch houses Habitat now builds have a living room, bathroom, eat-in kitchen, and unfinished basement, and sell for $74,000 (about the same as the cost of construction), including a $10,000 down payment. Buyers must provide a year's worth of insurance up front and do 250 "sweat equity" hours building their home and the homes of others.

Mrs. Kato said the houses would normally have sold brand new in Genesee County for $110,000. They take three months to build, with volunteers typically working Tuesdays and Saturdays. A single project involves hundreds of workers, including prison inmates who build kitchen cabinets and senior citizens who prepare lunches for the volunteer groups.

Eligibility depends on income and family size: for instance, a family of four that earns between $17,350 and $28,900 per year, or one person who earns between $12,150 and $20,250 per year. The families fall between the 25th and 50th percentile of Genesee incomes. The local chapter says it has never foreclosed on a mortgage, and the tardiest payments are less than two months behind.

Habitat does more than build homes, because the people who buy them must learn responsible ownership. After helping buyers get their finances in order, Habitat offers a free education in home maintenance, including how to patch a hole in a wall or deal with simple plumbing problems. Homeowners may also take an internet training course-they receive two years of free web access-and learn to maintain and improve their homes by making use of a secondhand home decor and appliance store located in the Habitat office building.

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