Habitat North Idaho builds multi-unit housing
By Kaye Hult
When James Casper became executive director of Habitat for Humanity of North Idaho November 2016, land prices were rising at a rate of 4 percent a year.
By 2019, land prices and appreciation for building single-family homes rose, so a 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath house was appraised for $225,000.
"That was overpriced from our point of view then. Now appreciation jumped 40 percent last year," James said.
So Habitat North Idaho began to look for an alternative way to provide housing.
At 11 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 5, they are dedicating six affordable housing units for local low-income families at 3433-3439 N. Fruitland Ave. in Coeur d'Alene. They broke ground in 2019 at Kunkel's Corner for their first multi-unit complex. Families will move in during February.
Named for the late Greg Kunkel, a construction supervisor with Habitat's A Brush of Kindness home repair program, the unit starts a shift from building single-family homes to multi-unit condos on a land trust.
"We are doing this to ensure homes remain permanently affordable for families," said James, noting that construction was slowed by the pandemic and supply chain issues.
When he first came to North Idaho, Habitat bought land and built a house to meet a family's needs. It then sold the house to them at about half the price, giving them a no-interest mortgage.
They did that because homeowners put in sweat equity—helping build the house or doing other tasks for 12 to 18 months. Partnering with the community, other labor is volunteer. Some materials are donated. After 10 years, a homeowner had access to the market value. Habitat forgave the rest of the mortgage and gave them full control of the equity.
"We make it so families can be successful," James said.
At Habitat, James learned that people on the margins don't control their own destiny. They work, but have limited control over what they can afford.
"At Habitat, we keep them from falling through the cracks," he said. "That need is now part of the public consciousness."
Habitat's new approach in North Idaho spreads the benefit to multiple families for multiple generations.
"With land values going up, building homes becomes a long-term affordability problem," he said. "With condominiums and land leases, we own the land and there is a cap on equity access with the crazy appreciation."
Condos offer more living units per piece of dirt. Each unit is personalized for the family. Habitat's ownership of the land stabilizes the tax cost to clients.
"A condo contract requires maintaining the building, so we don't have to come back and revitalize units 40 years later," he said. "We're not doing anything new. Condominiums with owners retaining the land lease have existed for a long time. It's just our specific format that is unusual."
A condo is self-sustaining and reflects the true cost of ownership for each generation, he said.
"Finding reasonably priced property is the biggest challenge," he said. "Small lots cost $80,000 to $90,000. The six-unit project would have been only three individual houses."
Habitat has to think toward future projects, James said, in order to find appropriate land.
They just broke ground on the next project, 21 units in four buildings near the first. They plan to build one building a year, with a five-unit one next. The five families are lined up.
When James first came to Habitat, he found the job a perfect fit, requiring background he had in sales, accounting and construction, even though he had never thought of working in affordable housing.
"I'd never experienced housing as unaffordable until I came and realized our clients' issues," said James, who began working when he was 15 in 2003. Earning $10 an hour at a call center, he and his brother, then 16, rented a two-bedroom town house in Idaho Falls, splitting $450/month rent, which was affordable.
Soon he began selling high speed internet. As a new concept, sales were easy. By 2008, the economy changed. People's finances were tighter. High speed internet was no longer new.
"I couldn't control whether the product I sold improved people's lives," James said. "I wanted to do something I felt good about. After the financial crisis, I wanted to work at cost for those who wanted to improve their lives."
James, who started a construction company with his father to do repairs and remodels, earned online associate's degree in marketing from American Intercontinental University and an online bachelor's in accounting from Kaplan University. Telecommuting to the University of North Dakota, he earned a master's in public administration in 2017.
Seeking a job to help people improve their lives, he chose to work with Habitat North Idaho, which was founded in 1989 to eliminate substandard housing in Kootenai County by building and preserving safe, affordable homes. It's an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, a worldwide, nonprofit ecumenical Christian housing ministry founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a simple, decent and affordable place to live in dignity.
Habitat North Idaho's A Brush with Kindness (ABWK) program was developed because older homes need repairs. Often older people who own them can no longer keep up the maintenance. ABWK helps them maintain their homes.
"ABWK is tilted toward the increased consciousness about how we grow older gracefully. There are more efforts to help people age in place," he said.
ABWK now works with the Disability Action Center (DAC) to install ramps. DAC is installing temporary ramps for people with acute problems.
Wheelchair ramps are not covered by medical insurance. A quality one costs between $5,000 and $7,000, James said.
Habitat realized the need usually is not temporary, so they found a way to offer permanent solutions. They build ramps using aluminum and grated metal come in sections, that can be readily broken down, moved and put back together.
"We break even and offer zero-interest loans, so people can pay them off," said James. "This is a classic nonprofit thing. Nonprofits do what the market doesn't do well. With Habitat, people pay for our services."
For information, call 208-762-4663 or visit northidahohabitat.org.