June 27, 2012 - On July 24, Oxford resident and mother of two Tiffany Hickey begins a chapter she never thought she would see open in her life. In about a month, she begins renovations on a home in Lake Orion she can call her own.
"I was renting an apartment for over $800 a month and decided to move back in with my parents and my two brothers . . . to try to buy a house, to save up some money for a down payment. I was going to give up until a friend mentioned Habitat for Humanity and said I should really go check it out."
So she took the advice, applied for a home and "was approved right away," she said.
Hickey's situation is precisely the condition Habitat seeks to alleviate. But according to Stephanie Osterland, Habitat's Oakland County Director of Family and Community Relationships, applicants often hesitate to apply for a Habitat home.
"I think people think that if they're going to apply for Habitat they have to move to Pontiac," she said. But though the location of their main office is in the southern part of the county, residents of northern Oakland County are certainly eligible to partner with Habitat to receive a home.
Another stumbling block applicants face is fear over credit scores. "I think people are scared because of their credit. I think some people think 'oh I'll get denied.' With Habitat, yes, we do look at credit (scores) but . . . we're much more lenient with past blemishes than people may think," Osterland made clear.
Hickey didn't let her fear keep her from the home she needed. She feels ready for the responsibility now, and said "I've been working really hard for the last couple of years to try and own my own house. (I've) rebuilt my credit. I have no debt right now," so the timing is right for Hickey to enter into home ownership.
Osterland said Michigan today is saturated with housing stock, so Habitat has decided to renovate existing homes instead of building new ones.
To qualify for a renovated Habitat home, applicants need to demonstrate three qualities: 1) A need for safe housing must be evident. "Whether the current conditions are inadequate, or overcrowded, something along those lines," Osterland said.
2) An ability to pay the mortgage must be also demonstrated. "The family does have to have some sort of consistent and stable income to be able to pay for the mortgage. The source of the income is not necessarily that big of a deal. It does not have to be strictly 'earned income' . . . it could be disability, SSI or something like that. It just has to be stable and consistent and it does have to fall within some guidelines. It has to be a certain level so that the home would be affordable," she continued.
3) A willingness to partner. This means that successful applicants must "commit to a partnership with Habitat and put in their 300 'sweat equity' hours." In other words, they agree to invest their time and energy into their home or another Habitat renovation project or do something to further the Habitat mission. "There are many ways to earn those hours," Osterland insisted.
Once applicants are approved for the service, Habitat begins to search for a home. "We want to find out roughly what location the homeowner would like. . .and then we will search for a property that fits our business model as well as the needs of the family," stated Osterland.
Osterland indicated there is no preferred profile for successful applicants. "It can be anybody. It could be an individual, or a family of eight. As long as they have the need, the ability to pay, and the willingness to partner, the family demographics can range and can be varied (from applicant to applicant)"
This means that an unmarried couple can apply, a single-mother can apply, a same-sex couple can apply; they will all receive the same consideration as would the stereotypical nuclear family.
Hickey, a single mother of two, feels blessed to be a home owner at long last, but knows that Habitat for Humanity is not a charity. "They don't just give it away," Hickey insisted. While some of her friends and customers at work think that she will just be given a house, she tells them "no, I'm gonna have a mortgage; it's just gonna be something I can afford and still be able to buy food for my house."
Further, she said, "I'm the type of person who likes to work for a goal. If it was given to me, I wouldn't have been working so hard. I've been working really hard for the last couple of years to try and own my own house. . . I feel that if it was given to me, I might not appreciate it as much.
Hickey has already earned half of the required sweat equity hours. She accomplished this by helping out at the Habitat office on her day off, and with the help of friends and family. "I brought two of my girlfriends with me and we painted the inside of their warehouse. I'm hoping that the other half of the hours will go pretty well with my family friends being at my house," Hickey said.
Now that she's a homeowner, Hickey anticipates a steady increase of liberty and responsibility. "I'm going to feel very free. I'm very excited to have my own home, not have to move again, move from here to here to try find the cheapest rent. I'm excited to have my own house, my own yard, to have one certain spot for my children instead of moving around. It will be more secure for them to be able to stay in one spot and make friends. We're (also) all sharing a bedroom (so) it's just going to be great just for them to have their own room. It will be great for our sanity," she said with a laugh.
Perhaps the most important benefit Habitat provides is the sense of accomplishment. "I can actually say 'I helped build my own house'," Hickey stated. "My kids are very excited to go there . . . and pound of couple of nails. I think that it's really awesome that we'll be sitting in our house that we actually helped to build!"
To provide these benefits to the family, Habitat first acquires the home. Before selling it to a new homeowner they make sure it satisfies the needs of the family as well as the Habitat business model. Once acquired, the home is then sold to the applicant at the full appraised value of the property. Financing of the mortgage comes in between zero and 3 percent interest rate over a 20-30-year period.
Osterland said "our goal is to make sure that the monthly mortgage payment including taxes, interest and insurance is about 30% of that homeowner's gross monthly income. That way it's affordable. What we find is most people who are renting are paying over $800 a month to rent a two-bedroom apartment or they are paying that plus lot rent to rent a mobile home. We can get them into a property --a home that they're going to own and build wealth-- for significantly cheaper than that."
To buy the renovated home, a minimum down payment of $1800 is required, $1000 of which goes toward the homeowner's down payment. $800 is required so the new homeowner can pay their first year's homeowner's insurance in advance. "$1800 is so much more reasonable for so many families than (the traditional) 20 percent of the purchase price," Osterland claimed.
Applicants should consider they are getting a "wonderful home, a high-quality home, and it can provide stability. So even if you think you may not qualify, give it a try--you have nothing to lose. "We don't have an application fee, . . . just send in the application and give it a chance, give it a shot, They never know until they try," she said.
Hickey found the people at Habitat to be very supportive though her application process.
"It's really easy, you just have to go down there and apply for it. And they are so nice. If you don't get approved for some reason, they're gonna tell you why and give you the chance to go and fix the problem. If they do (deny you) they actually work with you to help you fix your problem. They're just really great people."
For more information on Habitat for Humanity or to apply for home ownership, call Stephanie Osterland at (248) 338-1843 or visit www.habitatoakland.org