Building a house a year seemed about right for Tuolumne County’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.
With the cost of buying vacant lots, installing infrastructure and negotiating government red tape, adding one more low-cost home annually to the county’s inventory had proved a noble and reasonable goal for the chapter.
But thanks to initiative, generosity and a once-in-a-life opportunity, Habitat plans to build four new homes in each of the next two years, then eight homes annually through the mid-2010s. That’s more per year than it has built in nearly a decade on the job.
From a valued but modest player in Tuolumne County’s campaign for affordable housing, Habitat for Humanity has almost overnight become a major force.
Armed with a no-interest loan from Habitat’s national organization, the Sonora-based chapter bought a 40-lot subdivision off Columbia’s Parrotts Ferry Road at the bargain price of $399,000.
The lots are flat, most of the infrastructure is in, and the townhouses to be constructed on the 4.5-acre site have already been approved by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.
“It was almost too good to be true,” said Betsy Harden, director of the local chapter.
While recession usually conspires against the less fortunate among us, a bank foreclosure against the developers of the five-year-old Parrotts Ferry Village project worked in Habitat’s favor.
But without some bold moves, the bargain might have been lost.
When the Columbia property failed to sell at a foreclosure auction last spring, said Harden, County Housing Coordinator Sheila Shanahan “gave us a heads up.” A community committee, including Habitat directors, builders, developers, government officials and contractor Dave Turner, sprung into action and deemed the plan feasible.
Then came the matter of money: Although the Columbia tract came at a discount price, Habitat hardly keeps that kind of cash on hand.
Enter Roger Haughton, Twain Harte resident, retired mortgage and insurance executive, philanthropist, former Habitat For Humanity International board member and tireless backer of the local chapter. Using his considerable clout, Haughton convinced the national organization to come through with a no-interest “bridge loan” covering the entire purchase price.
The local chapter was off and running.
“Our phone has been ringing since the news broke,” said Harden, adding that finding low-income, credit-worthy families for the Columbia townhouses “will not be an issue.”
“We had 65 applicants for our last home and 20 had sufficient credit,” she added. “The need is there.”
Once chosen, owners help Habitat volunteers build the homes, pay sliding fees on interest-free loans and, to discourage profiteering, accumulate no equity until they have owned their new home for five years.
The timing could not be better: There is still a dire need for affordable housing in our community. But, thanks to the recession and consequent building doldrums, the county’s inclusionary ordinance and other Housing Element programs have fallen short of meeting needs.
But Parrotts Ferry Village was first proposed as an affordable housing development, so it seems fitting that Habitat has inherited it during this time of need.
This great story isn’t over yet: Habitat will soon launch a major fund-raising effort aimed at paying back the $399,000 bridge loan, giving everyone a chance to be part of a happy ending.