A Habitat homecoming

Staff WriterApril 4, 2009 

— Franklin Street native Jonathan Reckford leads the world's best known affordable housing agency at a time when owning a home is harder than it's been in decades.

Reckford grew up at 729 E. Franklin St. He was a UNC-Chapel Hill senior when, unbeknown to him, family friend Sam Wilburn was helping to establish Habitat for Humanity's Orange County chapter.

Twenty-five years later Reckford visited the Rogers Road neighborhood where his baby sitter had lived, this time as CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.

"Affordability's gotten a little better, but borrowing has gotten so much worse, so affording a home in this country has gotten further out of reach than it's ever been," Reckford said Friday.

Dozens gathered to celebrate Orange County Habitat's 25th anniversary and to break ground on a 20-acre subdivision. Phoenix Place will feature 50 new energy-efficient homes, doubling the number of Habitat homes in Chapel Hill.

The local chapter already has more than 600 families on an interest list. Reckford said that is evidence that demand for Habitat homes is rising as borrowing has become harder.

"The people that are on the bottom of the pay scale in our communities are feeling the squeeze even more than we are," said Susan Levy, executive director for Habitat in Orange County. Habitat provides homes for families earning 30 to 60 percent of the area's median income, or about $25,000 to $50,000 a year for a family of four. The agency provides zero-interest loans and caps the equity the homeowners can take out of the homes if they sell, ensuring affordability for at least 99 years. Habitat also requires sweat equity, with future homeowners working alongside volunteers to build the homes.

"We only loan to people who couldn't even get a mortgage in the bubble," Reckford said. "The demand's going up just as resources are getting tighter and tighter."

In a speech at Carol Woods retirement community later in the day, Reckford contrasted Habitat's model with the risky loans that have led to record foreclosures and the worldwide financial crisis. Instead of selling unprepared homebuyers bigger houses than they can afford, with ballooning mortgages they don't understand and foreclosing when they can't pay, Reckford said Habitat educates homebuyers, keeps homes small and prices low and helps individual families work through financial difficulties. Since 1976, Habitat has built about 400,000 homes for nearly 2million people.

In the crowd Friday morning was Charles Rogers, who grew up on Rogers Road and moved back a few years ago after Habitat built the Rusch Hollow neighborhood there.

On a cloud

"I haven't come down off of my cloud yet," Rogers said. "I don't know who all to thank, but I can't stop saying thank you, thank you, thank you."

Chapel Hill Town Council member Jim Ward said he planned to support Habitat's request for $250,000 in pass-through federal funding for building roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure in Phoenix Place.

"It will make Chapel Hill a more whole place than it is today," he said. "I don't want to live in a community that resembles Disneyland. I want to live in a real place."

Linda Parson, another Rusch Hollow resident, told of how her daughter accidentally got off her school bus at home instead of going to an after-school program. No one was home to watch her, but a neighbor cared for her until another bus returned for her.

"That meant a lot, that somebody was looking out for me and my family," she saidHabitat staff, volunteers and families build relationships throughout the construction process and beyond. Reckford was working in real-estate planning for Disney in Orlando when he first volunteered for Habitat, siding a house in 1992. On Friday morning, Reckford told of blacks and whites working together in South Africa, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and Carolina and Duke athletes in Durham.

"It just shows God can do anything," Reckford said.

jesse.deconto@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8760

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