This year, Habitat for Humanity (H4H) of Champaign County turns 25. Since building its first house in 1992, has worked in Champaign Couty to increase homeownership to the benefit of the families that need it and the community as a whole. 2017 is sure to be a momentous year for H4H as its staff and volunteers prepare to build their 100th house, while also celebrating the 14th anniversary of Habitat for Humanity's ReStore. With these and other accomplishments in mind, Sheila Dodd, the Executive Director of H4H of Champaign County, sat down with me to discuss the need, impact, and future of the organization in Champaign-Urbana and surrounding areas.

According to Dodd, some of the biggest challenges facing H4H of Champaign County are misconceptions regarding its work and mission. One of the biggest mistakes people make when thinking about H4H is that H4H gives away the houses they build. H4H actually sells all of the houses it builds. Therefore, one of H4H’s biggest goals this year is to increase outreach and awareness.

Let's take a moment to look at the numbers. Individuals and families who have achieved home ownership through H4H of Champaign County are currently paying over $225,000 in property taxes. In its 25 years of operation, H4H has held 80 mortgages, some of which are paid off. Some of those homes have even been resold. That's a lot going into our community, but how did H4H get us there? 

The road to buying a house from H4H is a long, but rewarding one that helps the families that complete it, as well as our community. The application process to enter the H4H housing program begins with the completion of an interest form. Qualifying families are invited to attend an orientation, during which they learn more about the process of owning a home through H4H. After the orientation, families complete an Application and go through an extensive review that includes, “an interview, a home visit, and credit and employment verifications.” Families accepted into the program complete 250 volunteer hours called “Sweat Equity” and save money during the 12-18 months before they move into their new home.

It is important to Dodd and H4H that people are empowered by the H4H application process and the achievement of home ownership. However, not all families are approved. Denial at any point in the application process does not mean that those families do not receive assistance or support. If an applicant is denied approval to continue to the next stage, H4H gives them the information and resources to address the concerns found on their application. Families that do not meet the qualifications to begin “Sweat Equity” aren’t told no, they’re told, “not yet,” says Dodd. Whether or not a family’s H4H application is approved or denied, the goal is that they learn what changes they need to make in order to eventually provide a home for their families. In any case, H4H provides them with the tool to achieve financial security and stability for their families. 

Two of the most common reasons that families seek out H4H for assitance is that they have great credit, but cannot qualify for a traditional bank mortgage because of their debt to income ratio. The other problem frequently afflicting area families is that they devote too much of their income to paying rent, or they live in poor renting conditions. When individuals and families are forced to allocate a significant portion of their income to rent and other housing costs they cannot pay for other basic needs like health, transportation, and education. H4H seeks to close these gaps by providing people with an affordable way to own a home so that they can pay for basic needs and invest in their futures.

Achieving homeownership is important for the entire community, not just the individuals and families themselves. The poverty rate in Champaign County is the fifth highest in Illinois. In addition, over 200 children in Champaign County are homeless. Now if you’re wondering why the number of homeless children in Champaign County isn’t readily apparent, it is because homelessness is defined as, “the chronic or temporary inability to maintain or secure housing defines homelessness.” The children in our community deemed homeless may be couch surfing or living with grandparents, but for whatever reason their families are unable to provide them with a safe and permanent home. Ensuring that children within our community have permanent place to go home everyday increases their mental, emotional, and physical safety. Those children are more likely to perform well in school and in turn, perform well in other aspects of life as they grow and become adults. In addition, increased home ownership helps create healthier, safer, and more stable neighborhoods.

Overall H4H provides incredible opportunities to families and Champaign County as a whole. When individuals and families in our community are doing well, the entire community does well. People are productive; they are safe, and able to contribute to the well being of the area in which they live when they have the stability that a home provides. It benefits us all to increase homeownership in our community.

It takes 16 weekends, appropriately called build weekend, to build a singly house. With 16 build weekends for one house and building occurring year round, H4H builds 8-10 houses per year. Orientations are held every other month and during the last application period over 40 individuals and families applied to the H4H housing program. Unfortunately, H4H does not have the capacity to meet the housing needs of Champaign County. If you’d like to help out, H4H needs more money and volunteers, and not just for building. Many individuals approach H4H excited to volunteer for build weekends, but H4H would really love to see more volunteers in the Habitat for Humanity ReStore located on University Avenue in Champaign. If you would like to help H4H of Champaign County kick off its 25th year with a bang and expand their reach, you can find more information about volunteering and donating on their website.

Keep an eye out for H4H events. During their 25th year, H4H of Champaign County hopes to hold one big event per month.

To learn more about H4H, how to become a homeowner through their program, or volunteer, visit their website.

To learn more about gaps in education, health care, and housing in our community, check out United Way’s 2015 Report.

Photos courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County.