Habitat for Humanity, the global housing nonprofit, has rehabilitated and built homes for Oregon's lowest-income families since 1985.
PORTLAND — The collapse of the housing market does not trouble LaTangie Myles. In a few weeks, she and her two sons will follow about 1,000 Oregon families and move into a house through Habitat for Humanity.
"All my life, I've been working and struggling," says Myles, 42, of northeast Portland. "But this? This will be ours. If I die tomorrow, my kids will be able to afford to live in this house."
Habitat for Humanity, the global housing nonprofit, has rehabilitated and built homes for Oregon's lowest-income families since 1985. This fall, the group finished its 1,000th house in the state; nearly 200 are in the Portland area.
This month, two dozen new homeowners, the Myles family among them, will get the keys to 23 just-built houses in the first Habitat community in Oregon, Jubilee Commons at Southeast 197th Avenue and Stark Street, in the western Gresham neighborhood of Rockwood.
"What's unusual about Habitat is that it's so much more than housing," says Steve Messinetti, executive director of Habitat's Portland/Metro East affiliate. "It's about wealth-building, rather than a temporary or immediate solution to a family's housing crisis."
That ambition came true for Ursula and David Hernandez on May 22, 1994, when they bought one of the first houses that Habitat for Humanity rehabilitated in Oregon, a bungalow just north of Northeast Alberta Street. The sale price was $42,000.
David Hernandez is a welder with 19 years at Pacific Fence and Wire Co.; Ursula was a teacher's assistant in Portland Public Schools until a recent layoff. They reared five sons in their Habitat house, and in March, they threw a party with tamales and a big pot of posole to celebrate paying off the $315-a-month mortgage.
Now that their youngest child is nearly grown, she and David are considering selling the house to downsize and to pay college tuition. "This has been good," says Ursula Hernandez, sitting in her dining room with a towering Christmas tree an arm's length away. "We could walk everywhere — to the school, to church, to the bank, the post office. The bus runs right over there."
A Habitat "partner family" promises not to sell the house for at least 10 years, to prevent flipping. If a family wants or has to sell, the house has to be offered back to Habitat first.
Each house has a "silent" second mortgage that is the difference between the sale price and the cost of construction, generally between $145,000 and $155,000. If the family sells the house, that second mortgage must be paid. After 25 years of residency, the second mortgage is forgiven.
The recession has delivered a pounding to other nonprofits that build "affordable housing." After 21 years and 400 homes for lower-income buyers, the local nonprofit HOST Development, which launched the New Columbia affordable-housing community, shut down operation in August. HOST helped buyers, who make closer to $50,000 for a family of four, get conventional mortgages from lenders.
Its president, developer Ted Gilbert, says HOST — for Home Ownership a Street at a Time — had crafted a big ambition in 2005, to build 1,000 houses by 2017: "We were doing 50 homes a year, and we wanted to build 100 homes a year." Then the credit crunch came down. HOST's unbuilt properties slipped underwater and eventually, HOST sold its holdings and folded.
A frugal operation and its target market have insulated Habitat against the battering of the bulk of the U.S. housing and house-financing industry. Habitat raises money through donations to pay upfront for land, draws on a nearly all-volunteer construction force, educates its buyers about homeownership and underwrites zero-interest mortgages.
Steve Rudman, executive director of the Housing Authority of Portland, which oversees public housing for 16,000 families, says Habitat's achievements, especially in a down economy, are "pretty amazing."
"I don't know if it's recession-proof or depression-proof," Rudman says, "but it's as close as it comes."
Part of that hardiness may come from the fact that Habitat builds for a market that most others ignore. For a family of four to qualify to buy a Habitat house, its income must be no more than 60 percent of Portland's household median, or $42,720.
As a condition of purchase, the new owner must invest 500 hours of sweat equity into the construction or renovation of the house.
Making that commitment appealed to Myles, 42. "The most fun thing was driving the nails into the foundation."
Myles, who "doesn't bring home $1,500 a month" as a teacher's assistant in the Reynolds School District, almost didn't qualify because her income was too low. Her 21-year-old son who works at Ikea will sign on as a co-owner.
"It's going to give me a really stable environment. I'm not going to have to move," she says. "My kids are not going to change schools. Habitat, I mean, I wish I would have known about it years ago. It is the most wonderful program."
On Northeast 10th Avenue, the Hernandezes recently painted the exterior of their bungalow a chic gray. Inside, a crucifix hangs in the living room with a large poster of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Ursula Hernandez, 56, says that after 15 years in their Habitat house, she and her husband have expertise on the experience. In fact, her oldest son recently qualified for a Habitat house.
LaTangie Myles is counting the days until she takes possession of her Jubilee Commons house and can hang curtains.
"It's still overwhelming. I even went over to the house on Saturday, and I just cried," she says. "It smelled brand-new. Everything is brand-new. I'm going to be there forever."