Q&A with Shannon Kauffman, homeowner services manager for Habitat for Humanity

RIGHT AT HOME: Shannon Kauffman says her experience of buying her first home through Habitat For Humanity’s Homeownership Program helps her encourage and guide applicants through the process. Photo courtesy of Kauffman

Shannon Kauffman, who moved to Asheville with her 3-year-old son Caleb in 2009, remembers working as a child care subsidy caseworker and struggling to make ends meet.

“Between rent and child care, there was nothing left. I would skip my light bill to pay for a week of child care, then skip my car payment to keep the lights on,” she recalls. “I felt like I was treading water.”

That was when a friend told Kauffman about Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity’s Homeownership Program, which offers qualified applicants a monthly mortgage that is equal to or less than 30% of their gross monthly income. Kauffman applied for the program and began working to build a home of her own. In 2013, she became a first-time homeowner.

Today, Kauffman helps other area residents become homeowners themselves as Habitat’s homeowner services manager, where she says her personal experience not only informs her work but inspires others.

Xpress sat down with Kauffman to discuss Asheville’s housing market, Habitat’s homeownership program and the importance of volunteering.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

What are the most common challenges people face regarding homeownership?

In a traditional housing market, it’s problems with their credit. People tend to ignore their credit until they’re ready to buy a home. While we can move on from our bad choices, our credit report is like that person who never lets you live down your mistake — that repossessed car, that maxed-out credit card. Collectors may have lost track of you, but our credit report is here to stay.

How is housing in Asheville different from that in other areas around the country?

Our housing crisis mirrors that which is seen in big cities. Unfortunately, Asheville wages lag far behind what it takes to live here. Wages in Asheville are similar to rates paid in small towns. We’re a mid-sized city with big-city costs and small-town wages.

In addition, we’re a hot spot for investors looking to buy up properties for short-term rentals, with unlimited resources on hand to outbid individual buyers. Asheville residents cannot compete. We’re seeing a lot of people who work in Asheville having to live in neighboring counties because they cannot afford to rent, let alone buy, in Asheville.

How do you describe Habitat’s homeownership efforts?

Established in 1983, Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity has built 356 homes in Buncombe County, serving 480 adults and 746 children. We will close on nine more homes by the end of this fiscal year.

Unlike a traditional lender, AAHH acts as both the lender and builder, and we only sell to low-income homebuyers earning less than 80% of the area median income ($60,100 for a family of four). By selling to low-income buyers, we provide opportunity to those who would not be able to buy a home in this area.

We’re in the midst of building our largest neighborhood to date. New Heights is a diverse, multigenerational neighborhood located off Old Haywood Road 6 miles from downtown Asheville. The neighborhood will include single family homes, two-story townhomes, and single-level townhomes specifically designed for aging adults 55 years and older. It will be accessible to people in all stages of life, a place where 98 households of all ages and backgrounds will build strong, stable futures.

According to Habitat’s website, all housing applicants must be willing to perform 200 hours of “sweat equity.” Why is this an important part of the program?

Our program of affordable homeownership is made possible by the use of volunteer labor, and the buyer’s sweat equity is a part of this volunteer work force. At Habitat, we like to say that we offer a hand up instead of a handout, and our buyers must exhibit a willingness to partner with Habitat.

The sweat equity is also important to prepare buyers for the responsibility of homeownership. Homebuyer education alone accounts for about 60 hours of sweat equity. Our homebuyers are familiar with the language in the deed of trust; they learn how to do small repairs on their homes, care for their HVAC systems, avoid predatory lenders and budget for the future. They do estate planning with our volunteer attorneys and learn conflict resolution. They earn sweat equity for each step along the way.

Finally, sweat equity builds vibrant, diverse communities. Our homebuyers come from all walks of life, but they are all centered on building a safe, affordable home for their families. When future neighbors work side by side, build each other’s homes and work at the ReStore, the community begins forming long before they close on their home.

What is your favorite part of your job?

As the homeowner services manager, I love to share my story with applicants. I want them to know I understand their struggle. Having done it myself, I can encourage them, because it’s not easy working full time while completing your sweat equity. In fact, it’s like taking on a second job for 6-7 months.

I tell them, “You will be exhausted, you will sweat, you will miss your kid’s soccer games. But in the end, you will be a homeowner. The pain will be a distant memory, but your home will last many lifetimes.”

Habitat has been instrumental in my life. As a Habitat homeowner, I have an affordable mortgage payment. As a Habitat staff member, I earn a living wage. To say that Habitat has had an impact on me would be an understatement. I feel like I won the lottery.


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