Union Democrat staff

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.

The reason?

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


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.