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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Habitat finds rare opening in mortgage crisis

DENVER – Oct. 7, 2008 – Jessi Graham had struggled to find affordable housing in Denver. Then, in part because of the nation’s depressed housing market and sluggish economy, her dream of owning her own home got a boost from Habitat for Humanity.

The non-profit organization helps make homeownership possible for low-income families. It has seen decreases in land prices anywhere from 30 percent to 40 percent in the past year, mostly in Western and Southern states – and thus an increase in the properties it can afford to acquire, says Stephen Seidel, Habitat’s national director of field operations.

For Graham, a single mother, Habitat’s unexpected benefit from a struggling market meant her two children would no longer have to deal with constant moves and cramped living spaces after moving into their Habitat home in Denver.

“My children will now be able to consistently have their friends, their rooms and ... somewhere to come back to and call home,” she says.

The home Graham and her family moved into was one that the Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver purchased when land prices were just starting to fall, says Robyn Burns, communications and marketing manager for the affiliate. The Denver chapter, which builds about 40 homes each year, has seen a 35 percent reduction in the per-unit land cost during the past two years, executive director Heather Lafferty says. Elsewhere:

• In Minneapolis-St. Paul, foreclosed homes are being made available for the local Habitat affiliate to purchase, spokeswoman Sharon Rolenc says.

The Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, which housed 47 families last year, is looking to purchase between four and six foreclosed homes from St. Paul. Within the next year it is looking at rebuilding homes in Minneapolis, some of which have been foreclosed, Rolenc says.

• In Sacramento, prices are not falling enough to present opportunities to local affiliates, Ken Cross of the Sacramento Habitat for Humanity says.

• In Fort Worth, lot prices decreased by 30 percent to 40 percent in the past year for the Trinity Habitat for Humanity, executive director Gage Yager says.

• In Miami, the local affiliate has been receiving calls from residents trying to sell their homes and recently began looking into purchasing foreclosures, communications director Michelle Marcos says. It already has purchased one, she says.

• In Dallas, the Habitat affiliate for the past two years has been working to purchase lots that have come on the market at prices that are much more affordable, says Cyndy Lutz, director of real estate.

Instead of behaving like a “land vulture,” waiting to swoop in on deals, Lutz says, the non-profit uses the opportunity to forge partnerships with local builders in Dallas and secure Habitat’s future with the community after land prices eventually rise.

Despite the good prices available, the situation is by no means a “good thing,” Lutz said.

“We don’t approach this market with any glee at all; anything that’s bad for the economy is bad for Habitat for Humanity,” she says.

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