Oakland County is home to 1.2 million people and is among the top ten richest counties in the United States with populations greater than one million. The County is comprised of 62 cities, villages, and townships on 908 square miles, supporting around 471,000 households with a median income of $62K. Oakland County is also home to approximately 170,000 households that rent.
In 2012, more than 680 of these renters applied to an organization known as Oakland County Habitat (OCH) for a chance to be a first time homeowner. Only 20 of these applicants could be assisted.
OCH is an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, which made the national stage in the early 1980s through the former President Jimmy Carter’s participation. Today, Habitat for Humanity is among the top ten developers of housing in America. OCH has one of its two major roots in Ferndale, where the Southern Oakland County Habitat developed its first project in 1994. Since then, OCH has assisted 120 households, and this year they are preparing to announce another new home owner in Ferndale, among other cities.
OCH, as is generally the case, is more similar to other Habitats than different. It is unique only in terms of its geography and population demographics. The outcome of that mix in Oakland County has resulted in a focus on renovation (of fore-closed properties) rather than new home construction.
OCH CEO Tim Ruggles recently wrote that there are more than 100,000 people living in poverty in Oakland County, and the need for affordable housing is great. The challenge is in acquiring land and structures that can be developed into affordable housing; typically a single family home with three bedrooms and one bathroom. Stephanie Osterland, Director of Family and Community Relations, added that “there is a silent housing crisis in Oakland County and
many of Habitat’s clients are dually impacted. When the economy took a downturn, rents didn’t didn’t go down and now that housing prices are going are going up up, the chance of becoming a first-time homeowner is increasingly slim.”
Despite the rebounding housing market, Oakland County Habitat recent- ly launched a new program to assist working class households, the Critical Home Repair program. As the program nears the end of its first year, Stephanie Osterland is worried that the word-of-mouth campaign isn’t reaching those in need of the service. “There is a lack of awareness of this new program but definitely not of need,” Osterland said.
It is her hope that homeowners who can’t afford necessary health and safety related home repairs will apply for assistance this calendar year. The Critical Home Repair program will grow in its second year depending on demonstrated need in the community for assistance with projects under $15,000. The cost to homeowners cannot exceed 30% of their annual gross income, and in all cases this program will positively contribute to housing values.
The home repair program and housing development projects are both partnership experiences between Habitat and the client, and the community — volunteers and sponsors.
During our interview, Stephanie’s mantra, “Habitat is not a give-away but a hand-up” was employed to describe this partnership with clients. It is a philosophy that is reflected in the sweat equity investment by clients of about 300 hours for housing development
and a percentage of the home repair assistance for homeowners.
Why is the hand-up a focus for Habitat? Stephanie replied, “I’m fighting a misconception of our work being a give-away and the associated stigma, which is really harmful to our families.” She expanded, “I don’t want to see families that I know personally, who are working very hard, to have this negative view cast on them.”
The other partnerships with the community are a mixed bag; Oakland County Habitat is not struggling to recruit volunteers, and currently “has a wonderful volunteer base.” They are always looking for sponsors, though, and their “greatest need today is for financial contributions.”
Representing the donor-weary, I asked Stephanie, what’s different about donating to Habitat? She responded simply, that unlike many charities with unknown recipients and ill-defined, ephemeral goals, with Habitat “you are donating to your community, to your neighbors.”
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