Durham Habitat Innovates in an Affordable Housing Crisis

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By Blake Strayhorn

Last month I wrote about Durham Habitat’s Homeowner Incubation Program which creates a pathway to homeownership for Habitat applicants who qualify on most, but not all, criteria for approval to buy a Habitat home.  This month I’ll tell you about another innovation: Habitat’s Tiny Home initiative.

Durham’s growth and construction boom means construction and land costs are rising, however, incomes  for Habitat homeowners has been flat for years.  The result is more and more of our Durham neighbors are being priced out of the housing options in their neighborhoods. Many families simply don't make enough money to afford Habitat’s average mortgage payment of $550; their incomes are too low to buy a typical Habitat home.

Habitat Tiny Homes are a part of the solution. We estimate we can build and sell a tiny home for a monthly mortgage of $300 or less.  We know they won’t be for everyone, but for people like our friend, Judy, they’re just right. 

A few months ago on a Saturday morning, I stopped by a Habitat building site and ran into George Beglane, a member of our Family Selection committee.  George is a committed, passionate, opinionated Geezer (our self-named, mostly retired, passionate volunteers), and a close friend.  George had a burr under his saddle about Tiny Homes, and he didn’t hold back.  “Why are you wasting your time on tiny houses? They’re just too small. What are you thinking? No one would ever want to buy one!”

I replied, “I agree, Tiny Homes won’t be for everyone. And they won’t replace our current homes, but they will provide another option. As costs rise, Tiny Homes are one way low-income neighbors can afford to buy a home.”

George wasn’t hearing it; we agreed to disagree, and I left to visit another job site.

Ten minutes later, I found myself on Spruce Street meeting Judy, a 67 year-old woman helping her niece, Robin, build her Habitat home. Judy had a great spirit about her; her duct tape name tag said: “JUDY (dancing queen).”

Judy asked me, “What’s your involvement with Habitat?”  When I told her I was Director, she got a look in her eye.  “Ah, so you’re the Director?” she said, pointedly. “Let me ask you a question.  Have you ever thought about building a Tiny House in Durham?” 

 “Funny you should say that. Why do you ask?”

She said, “There’s just one thing more I want to do before I go meet Jesus. I want to build and buy a Tiny House

I said, “Will you ride with me? I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”

As we drove back over to Ashe Street to meet George, Judy told me about her aspirations and dreams and why she thought a Tiny Home would be right for her.  “It’s just the right size,” she said.  “Mine will be 336 square feet.” 

Judy and George met, and they had an exchange I’ll not forget. Judy was as passionate about buying a Tiny Home as George was concerned. They listened to each other, and soon Judy (dancing queen) had George dancing on the build site!  

Next, I took Judy around the corner to see the Tiny Home that our friend, Neil, is building on S. Plum Street.  When I pulled up in front of the 425 sq. ft. house, Judy burst into tears, saying “I never thought I’d see one in Durham.”  Judy asked me to take her picture in front of the house, and said she will hang it on her wall while she waits to apply to buy her Tiny Home with Durham Habitat.

Now, Habitat’s Board of Directors is funding and building Durham Habitat’s first Tiny Home; “The Bonzai” will be 504 sq. ft. and will be built at 102 N. Guthrie. Building will begin in early 2017.

Habitat is also exploring small homes as accessory dwelling units to existing homes, and we’re considering requesting code changes to create more buildable lots for tiny homes. We’d also like to design and build an intentional small home village by creating a pocket, compact neighborhood. 

Habitat has been building in Durham since 1985, and we’ve built - and sold - more than 350 homes in partnership with hard-working, low-income neighbors in Durham.  We’ve also repaired more than 250 homes for low-income neighbors who own their homes. But it’s not enough.  We are committed to explore opportunities, traditional and innovative, as we strive to build a Durham where all our neighbors have a safe, warm place to call home.

We need your help!  Won’t you make a “Giving Tuesday” donation to Durham Habitat?  Visit durhamhabitat.org. 

Habitat Success Stories

Lal is a Burmese refugee who came to Durham after stops in India and Thailand. Lal partnered with Habitat and the Durham Literacy Center to renovate a historic home in East Durham. “There is no more fear,” Lal said. “We won’t have to move again because the home belongs to us.”

Lal