Bringing Sustainable Homeownership to Dane County

Habitat volunteers celebrating with homeowners Mario and Brooke and their three children, Yoana, Aracely, and Thiago, as their home is nearly completed in Fitchburg.
Photograph by John Kalson

For 31 years, Habitat for Humanity of Dane County has built and rehabbed homes alongside 281 local families and repaired dozens of homes for existing homeowners through the Habitat Home Repair program. The ultimate goal: a world where everyone has a decent place to live.

While having a safe, decent, and affordable place to live sounds simple, it really isn’t. So many Dane County residents don’t have a strong roof over their head or a safe place to tuck children into bed at night. In fact, one in eight people here live in poverty, including 16 percent of Dane County’s children. Habitat is addressing this through sustainable homeownership.

Habitat’s homebuilding model relies on cash donations, scores of volunteers, and donated materials to keep the cost of constructing homes low. Habitat then sells the homes to carefully selected families who typically fall between 30 to 60 percent of Dane County’s median household income, those who would not be able to qualify for most traditional financing.

Each Habitat family invests 325 to 375 hours of “sweat equity” building their home alongside volunteers, attending 40 hours of coursework to prepare them for homeownership, and paying a 30-year mortgage with below market interest rates. Monthly mortgage payments are capped to no more than 30 percent of the family’s gross income to make it affordable and sustainable for their family. Every mortgage payment contributes to future building projects, making the model sustainable for Habitat.

“We are committed to sustainable homeownership,” Habitat CEO Valerie Renk explains. “To us, that means everything you can see—building a new home or purchasing a distressed home and completing a renovation. We also do so many things that aren’t so visible, like home repairs and maintenance for modest-means Dane County residents who already own their homes.”

Last August, Habitat helped Jean, an elderly homeowner who has lived in her home on Madison’s east side for almost 70 years. At 92, she is healthy, lives by herself, and gets checked on regularly by her niece. Jean’s home and garage needed painting and maintenance. The last time she painted her two-story home, she did it herself. Through the Habitat Home Repair program and with help from volunteers from Madison’s local U.S. Navy recruiting station, Jean was able to get her home painted at a low cost that fit her budget. This was an especially sweet volunteer match, as Jean’s late husband also served in the Navy.

“Habitat Home Repair was designed to preserve homes by providing a low-cost solution to assist struggling homeowners with home improvements,” Valerie explains. “We’re proud to put in wheelchair ramps and fix critical issues to keep homeownership sustainable for everyone, including low-income families, single parents, elderly homeowners, veterans, people with disabilities, and even those facing city code violations or insurance policy cancellations who are struggling to keep their homes on a tight budget.”

In addition to sustainable housing, Habitat is focused on sustainable funding. Seventeen years ago, Habitat launched Habitat ReStore to raise funds for its homebuilding program with the added benefits of helping the environment and providing affordable building materials to the community. Now with two locations—4207 Monona Drive and 5906 Odana Road—the ReStores raised almost $500,000 to help fund Habitat homebuilding during its last fiscal year.

More recently, Habitat became the first Habitat for Humanity in the nation to be recognized as a federally designated Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). CDFIs fund economic growth and opportunity in distressed communities. By investing federal dollars alongside private sector capital, the CDFI Fund serves mission-driven financial institutions, which Habitat Dane County is considered, and injects new sources of capital into neighborhoods that lack access to affordable financing.

Currently, Habitat is building at sites in Madison, Fitchburg, and Sun Prairie, and Habitat Home Repair projects are sprinkled throughout Dane County. “As homeowners’ needs evolve in Dane County, we’re always looking to see how we can make our program and funding more sustainable,” Valerie says. “We are committed to building for as many Dane County families as possible and keeping current residents in their homes whether they’re aging in place, facing storm damage, or any of the countless reasons residents may need a hand up, not a handout.”

Jenny Ballweg is the communications director at Habitat for Humanity of Dane County.

Habitat for Humanity of Dane County
3101 Latham Drive
Madison, WI 53713
608.255.1549
habitatdane.org

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