Local Habitat home-builds lag behind other communities


A struggling economy and lack of volunteer help were attributed to the discrepancy

by: BILL MINTIENS - Pictured above are Prineville Re-Store team members Leland Blackburn, Yvonne Penner, Jeanne Sterling, Bill Graves, and Diesel the store mascot.

Since its inception in 1998, the Crook County Habitat for Humanity affiliate has built considerably fewer homes than other Central Oregon affiliates.

CCHFH has sold just four homes to qualifying low-income families and individuals, and purchased, renovated, and sold two other foreclosed properties for a total to six.

By comparison, the Jefferson County HFH affiliate has built or purchased/renovated 18 homes since 1994. Redmond's HFH program has built 13 homes since 1992, and Sisters' HFH affiliate, which formed in 1991, has built 52 homes.

Part of the answer to this discrepancy lies in the local economy. Crook County continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 11.7 percent. In addition, the Oregon Housing and Community Services' 2011 Report on Poverty showed that, in 2010, 3,610 people in Crook County were below the poverty line -- 17.4 percent of the county's population.

"The challenge we have seen over the last few years is finding the families or individuals that qualify for our home ownership program. Many that have applied are under our income guidelines, lack employment altogether, or have more than a 40 percent debt-to-income ratio," said Robin Cooper Engle, Community Outreach Manager for Bend Area Habitat for Humanity.

Another part of the answer is that the CCHFH almost ceased to exist in 2008.

Entirely volunteer-driven in those days, it became impossible to retain a paid staff person and volunteer help became harder to secure.

Jim Larson, a retired attorney in Prineville, and until recently, a Bend Area HFH Board member and Chairman of the Prineville Steering Committee, recalled those days.

“We had a community outreach manager and we had done about two or three homes. We applied to become an independent affiliate, but International (Habitat International) said, ‘No, you’re not ready to be independent.’ So we had to cut that position.”

Without a point person, the CCHFH lost momentum.

“If you don’t have someone who’s devoted to the cause everyday, like an employee, it’s really difficult to grow and maintain. You need someone who’s in the community, watching the budget on a daily basis,” added Larson.

The Crook County HFH merged with the Bend Area HFH in 2008. The goal was to utilize the strength of Bend to help Crook County.

“We combined operations with Crook County in 2008 because of our capacity to help the Crook County affiliate to exist,” said Cooper Engle.

“Crook County was run mainly by volunteers and that model wasn’t working well anymore. The Bend affiliate is the largest Central Oregon Habitat affiliate and we have the capacity to provide the staff and administration to continue to serve the families and individuals in need of affordable housing, home repair and weatherization services in Crook County.”

Despite help from the Bend affiliate, CCHFH new and/or refurbished homes have not kept pace with other areas.

“Part of it has to do with donations. Prineville people are somewhat suspicious about donating to something called the Bend Area Habitat for Humanity. They worry that their donation is not directly supporting Crook County,” said Jim Larson. “But we did get an anonymous $100,000 donation a couple of years ago that helped us purchase a few lots and refurbish a couple of foreclosures.”

Cooper Engle is quick to note that all funds raised in Crook County stay local — they don’t support Bend-area projects. “Anything that we raise in Crook County stays there, same as in Bend. We have to supplement funding, of course, but they’re (CCHFH) making real progress.”

Prineville’s Habitat ReStore has been a successful addition to CCHFH’s revenue stream. Selling new and gently-used furniture, home accessories, building materials, and appliances at a fraction of the retail price. Proceeds are used to build homes and fund repair and weatherization projects. The store has one employee, Bill Graves, who manages the entire operation.

“The Prineville ReStore’s net revenue covers about 40 percent of CCHFH’s expenses. Bend covers the rest,” said Cooper Engle.

Sharlene Weed, Executive Director with the Sisters Habitat for Humanity, has two stores — a ReStore and a thrift store.

“Both stores are hugely successful. A thrift store works for us because we are the only show in town — and we have huge numbers of volunteers working in the stores.”

Though successful in Sister, Cooper Engle does not think a thrift store would locally.

“It just doesn’t make sense model-wise for Prineville.”

Arnett in Redmond agrees. “International (Habitat) advises us not to get into the thrift store business because you need a huge amount of volunteers to sort, clean, and manage the store.”

Despite CCHFH’s low home-building numbers, its ReStore has consistently provided a place where people trying to re-enter the workforce can gain experience.

“We have folks here from Experience Works (senior employment program), COIC (worker retraining program), and people required to perform community service through the justice system,” said Graves. “I’m in the process of recruiting more volunteer community members right now, because we’d like to get more people involved. The work we do here is important to our community.”

CCHFH also introduced a Home Repair Services program in 2010, through which qualifying homeowners can obtain affordable repair services or maintenance based on their family’s budget.

Services such as exterior painting, roof repairs/replacement, insulation, and accessibility items like handrails and ramps are included in this program. Qualifying homeowners pay for these services with a 0-percent interest loan from Habitat.

“Since 2010, when we began the Home Repair and Weatherization Program for low-income homeowners, we have helped more than 25 families or individuals in Crook County, mainly Prineville,” said Cooper Engle.

So, while the CCHFH may not have the home-building numbers of surrounding affiliates, it has found ways to help a number of low-income families fix and/or maintain their existing homes.

Consequently, the CCHFH wants to encourage people in Crook County to apply for their homeownership or repair programs — and not to assume they don’t qualify for one of the programs.

“We’re all about helping people no matter what their situation,” said Larson.