In Our View: 20 Years, 21 Homes

Local Habitat for Humanity organization helps families embrace the American Dream

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For 20 years in Clark County, Habitat for Humanity has operated under the ethos of providing a hand up, not a handout.

By building affordable homes for families living in substandard housing, providing no-interest loans for the purchasers, and requiring copious sweat equity by those moving into the residences, the international organization serves as a model for modern charities.

“This house means everything to us,” Cindy Johnson recently told Columbian reporter Scott Hewitt for a story about the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. “If it wasn’t for Habitat, there would be nowhere else to go.”

Johnson and her husband, Michael, bought the first Habitat home in Clark County. And as the local chapter celebrates its 20th anniversary, the couple’s move two decades ago from a poorly ventilated, leaking mobile home points out the importance of the organization’s work.

Homeownership often is cited as one of the pillars of The American Dream, being viewed as a symbol of security and success. More importantly, it can help break a cycle of poverty for many families, building up equity and providing a safe, warm, dry environment for children that can pay dividends in future generations.

That is the goal of Habitat for Humanity, which was founded in 1976, received a public-relations boost from former President Jimmy Carter in the 1980s, and has built about 350,000 homes worldwide.

Families that are living in substandard housing go through an application process, background and credit checks, and interviews before being offered an affordable, no-interest mortgage in exchange for 300 hours of work for each adult. As mortgages are paid, Habitat for Humanity accrues capital to purchase more land and build more houses.

With help from volunteers and corporate partners, the local Evergreen chapter has been able to build 21 homes in the past 20 years, and three more are scheduled for completion this year. The group also recently broke ground on the seventh and final home in a development near Five Corners.

“These are people who’ve started to lift up from the bottom again,” Bill Bryant, who long has been involved with the local chapter, told The Columbian. “They have jobs. They have families. They are trying to make a go of things.”

Much is made in this country about the issue of homelessness. The problem often is readily visible, with people sleeping in parks or panhandling on the sides of freeway offramps. The issue of substandard housing, however, is far less visible yet no less disconcerting. All Americans should long for the day when everybody can find the means and the will and the work ethic to avoid living in poorly ventilated, leaking mobile homes.

According to a 2005 United Nations report, 1.6 billion people worldwide were living in what was deemed as substandard housing. In many ways, they are the invisible poor, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

Part of the philosophy of capitalism is that people are responsible for creating their circumstances. We agree with that, and that is why Habitat for Humanity is to be lauded. By requiring responsibility and work on the part of homeowners, the organization reinforces the notion that effort pays dividends and that nothing is free.

The homeowners might get a cut-rate mortgage out of the arrangement, but they do what is within their ability to earn it. A hand up, not a handout, serving as a reminder of the best in humanity. The Johnsons, for example, helped build their home before they were informed that they would be the residents.

As Michael Johnson told The Columbian: “It’s been a blessing. I never thought I could own a home like this.”