Orange County Habitat for Humanity celebrates 30 years

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2014 

— India Alston skipped excitedly through the partially finished hallways of the Habitat for Humanity house that soon will become her home, offering a 9-year-old’s vision for the decor.

The elementary school student pointed to the bedroom that will be hers and knew immediately what she planned to put inside.

“My nail polish collection,” India said before flashing a giddy grin. “I’ll need a little spot for it.”

A smile spread across the face of Sherry Horne, the mother of the budding stylist, as India shared her decor plans.

“This means so much to me,” Horne said. “My kids get to have a room of their own.”

The four-bedroom Habitat home that Horne and her three children will soon occupy is one of the final seven homes of the 50 green-certified houses that make up the Phoenix Place community in the northern reaches of Chapel Hill. Habitat families spend 325 hours helping to build their own homes and their neighbors’ places, and Horne has worked with scores of volunteers as her dream of homeownership got closer to reality.

“I’ve seen it from the very start until now,” Horne said, recalling the clearing of the lot and all the quick education she has received in home construction. “It’s been a whole lot of fun to work on. I’ve actually learned lots.”

Habitat for Humanity Orange County, which partners with community groups and others to build homes that qualified families can afford to own, celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday.

There was a huge backyard cookout with barbecue, slaw and hushpuppies. Face-painting, LEGO building projects and a bounce house attracted the children, as did photo opportunities with Rameses, the UNC mascot.

Over the past 30 years, the organization has built 249 affordable homes in a county where the price of housing has skyrocketed. In 2012, the average price of a detached single-family home in Chapel Hill was $429,263, according to Habitat of Orange County. The average rent for a three-bedroom apartment in 2013 in Chapel Hill was $1,301 per month.

The waiting line for financial assistance from the federal Section 8 housing program is at least four years, and more than 1,800 qualified applicants are on that list.

Susan Levy, executive director of the Orange County Habitat program, said a look back at the past three decades, two of which she has been present for, “is a little overwhelming.”

The Habitat model, which has been used internationally, relies heavily on volunteers supervised by a very small professional construction staff.

Joel Fisher, a site manager in Orange County, was inside Horne’s home on Saturday, talking about the many elements of the design plan that should make it more energy efficient. When Fisher moved to North Carolina in 2010, he had no idea he would enjoy working with and teaching volunteers. He has to keep a close eye on the work as it progresses over the four to six months it typically takes to build a Habitat house.

“That’s one of the things I like the best — showing people things they’re doing and explaining why they’re doing it like they are,” Fisher said.

In Habitat’s early days in Orange County, volunteers typically built one or two homes a year on lots scattered across the county.

These days, about 30 families get Habitat homes each year, and many are being built as small communities within larger neighborhoods.

Habitat began construction on the Phoenix Place neighborhood four years ago. Not only was it an experiment in community building, it also was a test of “green building” and energy efficiency.

A smaller but similar neighborhood project will soon begin in Efland, just five miles west of Hillsborough. Tinnin Woods, as the new community will be called, eventually will be home for 28 families.

Levy, the Habitat executive director, said the next 30 years will present different challenges.

Not only has the demand for affordable houses far exceeded the supply, there also will be discussions about whether to focus on detached housing or attached, as land becomes more expensive, and town and county leaders promote density over sprawling development.

Levy said the organization also has been talking about developing projects that will make it easier for the elderly to stay in their homes as they age.

“In many ways, the next 30 years will be more challenging,” Levy said.

Sherry Horne, the soon-to-be homeowner, who just happened to come across Phoenix Place while driving around looking for a place close to her salon job in Durham, was busy on Saturday enjoying the fruits of the labor from the first three decades.

“In Chapel Hill, owning your own home, that really means a lot to me,” Horne said. “It’s really great.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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