Benton County Habitat for Humanity finds themselves in a tough position, trying to serve a community where there are many aspiring homeowners but not nearly as many reasonably affordable homes. But their history and current projects show they are reacting constructively, trying to expand the scope of what they do, and implement some new ideas.
Benton Habitat is one of 28 Habitat affiliates across Oregon. They were founded in 1991 and have built 38 homes across the county, currently working on their 39th. Their Community Engagement Manager Daniel Sidder and Homeowner Services Manager Tabitha Ciulla both sat down with us to speak about Benton County’s housing challenges and how Habitat is confronting them.
While Habitat offers home repair help as well as disaster relief and preparedness, their feature is the New Home Program, where families, their friends, and volunteers offer hundreds of hours of labor as “sweat equity” in the construction of their own home. Thanks to ongoing community support as well as a grant from Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS), Benton Habitat’s latest undertaking is a planned six-home lot in Philomath known as the Woodlands Development.
“Our first family was selected [last] summer,” Daniel Sidder says, pointing to a photo of the seven members of the Rodriguez-Garibay family.
“It says a little bit about the housing crisis we’re in,” Sidder continued, “that they were approved for a loan…for about $250,000, but couldn’t find anything in their price range.”
When asked what he thought the county’s housing market needed most, Sidder said simply, “more homes.” According to him, Benton Habitat builds single-family homes for an average of $200,000 for land and materials, but on local real estate listings there are only around 5 homes listed near that price in all of Benton County.
The OHCS grant offers Benton habitat $65,000 per home, but also requires them to achieve full occupancy by September 2021. Sidder acknowledges that’s an accelerated timeline for them, given that they’ve historically built 1-2 homes per year and are now looking at building 5 homes in 2 years. And not just building homes, but also the “site work,” including building a road to the eventual neighborhood.
Tabitha Ciulla came to work at Habitat through an internship with OSU about three years ago. She worked on family selection for Benton Habitat’s first “passive home,” built with features like multi-paned windows and heavy insulation to minimize energy use. According to Ciulla, the homeowner pays about $5 a month in utilities. They were the first Habitat affiliate in Oregon to build such a home.
Ciulla was inspired by the impact that home ownership could have on the lives of partner families. The owner of the passive home had previously lived in shelters and temporary housing. For them, home ownership not only improved their life as individuals, but fundamentally gave their four kids a chance at a better life as well.
Partnership with other organizations is a large part of how Benton Habitat reaches and recruits partner families, Ciulla said. In the past, Habitat’s partnerships were more limited to the faith communities which gave rise to their affiliate in Benton County. But now, they are seeking more relationships with other parts of the service community. They use direct outreach to social service agencies and schools and partner with other services like Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services and Linn-Benton Housing Authority. This gives Benton Habitat a better sense of where people are on the “continuum of housing,” and what tools they need to help them.
“I see a lot of our families are really self-sufficient,” said Ciulla, “They have their debt in check…they have regular, steady jobs.”
“But in Corvallis and Benton County,” she continued, “it’s very difficult to find homes for less than $200,000.”
She echoed Sidder’s observation that plenty of families who come to Habitat have qualified for traditional home loans, but the average home price in Benton County puts that first rung of home ownership out of reach.
Asked if Benton Habitat has plans to continue building sustainable “passive homes” of the variety that Ciulla worked on, she said that while the project generated a lot of community enthusiasm, they want to focus on “building simple, decent, affordable homes, because there’s still a need for that in the community.” The passive home project was also a partnership with a private architecture firm, an opportunity that doesn’t regularly come along. But Ciulla thinks being first has opened up the possibility for similar projects to be taken up by other Habitat affiliates.
Benton Habitat is in the process of selecting the second and third of what will be six families at the Woodlands Development.
By Ian MacRonald