A hand up for Humanity

Meet the house that Haynes built.

As you turn into the cozy, six-building Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity development at East End Place off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, look for the home still under construction. A sign out front proclaims it to be courtesy of Warren’s celebrated power trio and big annual concert. But work crews simply call the place “The Gov’t Mule House.”

This year, Warren handed the local Habitat a check for $70,000, proceeds from his 2002 Christmas Jam. It’s the single-largest cash donation the organization has received in 2003, noted Lew Kraus, its executive director.

“It’s a ton of money,” he admits. “Quite frankly, it’s pretty mind-boggling to me.”

Only in Asheville, Lew muses.

“Where else can you go where six hours of music builds a home?” Lew asks.

Haynes’ ongoing gifts are one part of what’s allowed Habitat to press firmly ahead with its building efforts, with 12 new houses planned for next year, up from the eight constructed in 2003. Goals for coming years are even more ambitious: 14 houses planned for 2005, and 16 in 2006.

The Asheville organization opened its doors here in 1983 as Habitat for Humanity’s first state affiliate. Since then, it’s built 117 homes in Buncombe County.

The local organization has a paid full-time staff of less than 15 — three at job sites, four in the office and five in the new Biltmore Village-area Habitat Home Store, which brings in about $60,000 monthly selling donated items.

Everything else, though, is volunteer. “That’s our lifeblood,” Lew says.

Last year’s construction ate up 17,000-20,000 volunteer hours on the job site, he adds, which means that twice as many hours will be needed in 2006.

Kenny Busch, an assistant supervisor at local Habitat building sites, figures there are about 65 regular volunteers helping with construction. The bulk of them are retirees, he reports.

Building materials and paid labor on each Habitat house average about $50,000, with land prices, tool and maintenance costs — even Porta-Johns — also factored into each home’s selling price, Lew reports.

The organization subcontracts for certain construction needs (electrical, plumbing, etc.), though hired contractors often drop rates or give away their time outright.

And while high-profile benefit concerts encourage the idea that Habitat is a charity, qualified homeowners themselves get no handouts.

Families are chosen based on their need (overcrowded conditions, an unsafe environment or exorbitant rent payments), their willingness to work, and their ability to pay back their own mortgage, Lew says. The local Habitat has only foreclosed on one property for nonpayment in 20 years.

Potential homeowners, who give Habitat a minimum of 250 hours of unpaid-labor (Habitat calls this “sweat equity”), buy their homes at cost (typically in the $80,000 range) on a 30-year, interest-free mortgage.

In 2003 alone, all the Asheville Area Habitat homes combined brought in $120,000 in property taxes for local government, Lew reveals.

But for Habitat workers, the rewards are a bit less tangible.

“It does put a lot of gas in our tanks,” Lew says, “when you have families that come in and say, ‘Guess what? My child was the first one ever in our family history to graduate from college.’

“It’s not that we can take credit for that,” he adds. “But we take part of that joy.”

— Frank Rabey

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