Habitat panel delves into role of home ownership
Betsy Wilkerson of the Spokane City Council, Vange Ocasio Hochheimer of the Whitworth economics department and Ezra Eckhardt, CEO of STCU, emphasized the power of home ownership as key to ending homelessness in a panel discussion for the April 29 Habitat for Humanity-Spokane Hope Builders Virtual Lunch-in.
Habitat-Spokane CEO Michelle Girardot moderated their discussion on affordable housing and homelessness in the context of the solution Habitat offers by stabilizing families through affordable home ownership.
Habitat raised about $100,000 of its goal of $150,000 and continues to receive donations.
Vange, an associate professor of economics, said "housing is a social determinant of health. A lack of affordable housing brings a host of other issues. Housing is a human right, essential to human dignity."
Now at STCU three years, Ezra grew up in Spokane and has seen the community evolve.
"Housing is critical infrastructure in society," he said. "I'm glad to be part of the solution and open doors to home ownership."
Michelle said housing instability exacerbates exposure to deadly viruses and results in disparities among neighborhoods.
For Betsy, zoning has not kept pace with growth. She suggested the city work with developers so everyone has a home.
"We can't operate in a silo mentality. No one entity will solve the housing crisis. Developers, financiers and government need to work together," she said. "The city passing initiative 1590 is a start on the path. Zoning can be a barrier and add costs that limit housing. Habitat built more than 50 homes in East Central Spokane. In the hot housing market, we need to do things in a different way or we will not have the outcome we seek."
Affordability for home buyers has gone down, bouncing with the lack of rental units, said Vange.
"In the pandemic, infections spread more in extended families living together, and among homeless youth and racial minorities. Spokane has seen an increase in homeless youth," she said. "In school, homeless students perform poorly. Housing determines health. We tend to blame homeless people for their housing problem. We need the homeless to be at the table to tell their stories."
Ezra said home should be a safe place for children. Family isolation has been a problem in the pandemic. Families need the security of a home. Habitat is part of the solution."
Over 35 years in Spokane, Habitat built 350 homes, helping people move out of homelessness, said Michelle, inviting panelists to share their concerns.
Betsy knows how important a home is. She and her two children were homeless for a while, until she became a home owner through a government HUD program that allowed her to put down just $1,000.
"That changed the trajectory of my life and my children's lives," she said, citing the Sheridan Elementary School principal, saying his students need homes. "Affordability is the issue. Low down payments help. Government has a role. We should not leave it to the private sector. Home ownership requires capital, education and additional support."
Vange experienced homelessness when she was 14 after being evicted with her mother and seven siblings. She moved in with a neighbor, and then found a job so she could rent a room in Queens in New York City.
"Now I have a doctoral degree in economics. Some see someone who is homeless and think it's from drug use or risky behavior," she said. "It's the other way. Poverty and homelessness happen first. As a result, people lack food and may self-medicate.
"Some wonder why they should help an addicted person get into a house, but homelessness happens first," she said concerned about youth homelessness."
Vange said that in today's economy there are multiple reasons for a lack of affordable housing, so it's important to support Habitat efforts to help low-income people own homes.
"We need a multi-dimensional approach to deal with regulations, to support new construction of homes and to assure rental protection for tenants," she said.
For Ezra, the obstacles are the lack of access to knowledge about city and state resources to assist with down payments.
"To have thriving homeownership and see a stable society, we need access to information, more houses in the inventory and help for people to navigate the system," he said.
Betsy called for an end to penalizing homelessness.
"Education is critical," she said. "First-time home buyer programs need to help people restore their credit so they are in the pipeline to allow their dream to actually end with a home."
Michelle introduced Thomas, a future homeowner and single dad who has a full time job and puts in sweat equity so his three-year-old daughter can grow up with her own room. He takes courses on home ownership to learn what it takes to own a home.
In its home ownership program, Michelle said Habitat walks beside future homeowners while they build their homes.
Vange added that improving housing should be part of Spokane's economic development and strategic planning.
Betsy called for reimagining housing to include cottages, condos and back-yard grandparents' houses. Government can create a land bank with empty spaces and vacant lots.
Along with putting faces on the housing crisis to build solutions, she said there is need for new forms of home financing.
Ezra said solutions require predictability that comes from coordination of government and private entities. As part of a unified, sustainable process to tackle problems, he includes support of homeowner and offering new options, such as structuring payments for 40 year loans.
"Habitat is creative in finding ways to assure that lower payments play into access and knowledge for first-time home owners. Interest needs to start low and be locked in," he said.
Michelle said access to housing means access to affordable home ownership.
Habitat fills a space, helping families buy homes with sweat equity, learning about home ownership to dispel their fears of home ownership, Betsy said.
Vange said housing is a public good, a necessity like food. Everyone has the right to a safe place to live. It's a right, not a privilege. Housing has a positive impact. It increases graduation rates, and reduces emergency room visits and mental health struggles.
Ezra said people want to improve their lives. If a family has a safe place, he believes parents create a nurturing environment.
"When they have a stable foundation, the community roots out poverty and tackles underlying problems so the community can be strong," he said.
"Home is where the heart is," said Michelle, "and the heart needs a roof over it."
For information, call 534-2552 or visit habitat-spokane.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2021