Program Report – Blake Strayhorn and Habitat of Durham

Ah, the sweet smell of fresh cut lumber and the music of spinning saws and rhythmic hammers under a crisp blue sky.  Another Habitat House is coming.

Don Stanger, who is not only our club President but also the Board Chair of Habitat for Humanity of Durham, introduced Blake Strayhorn, the new President/Executive Director of Habitat to update us and announce that the Rotary Board had approved the  sponsorship of another Habitat home here in Durham. Blake is also one of the newer members of Rotary.

Since 1985 Habitat of Durham has built 280 homes under their model of providing affordable housing for worthy potential homeowners. This year it expects to complete 16 homes and there are currently 25 applicants on the waiting list for participation in the program.

As both a real estate agent and participant in the last two Rotary “builds” I’m amazed at the quality of the homes. They are kept affordable through sponsorships like ours, sweat equity from the purchasers, 0% financing and energy efficiency.  Typical payments are a little over $500 per month from owners with typical incomes of between $20,000 and $25,000.  Habitat not only builds homes but does renovations and fix-ups with the same purposes in mind.

Blake shared with us a video (see it at http://www.durhamhabitat.org/news/payitforward.html) that was introduced at their annual Foundation Breakfast in May that does a great job of showing the motivations of donors and volunteers and what Habitat means beyond building houses. It also perfectly illustrates the “Pay it Forward” theme that Habitat adopted for this year as the home owners featured talked tearfully about the gratitude they felt for the help they were getting and their commitment to reach out an help others.

The video and Blake’s excellent presentation provide a tantalizing taste of the benefits of Habitat but I don’t think you can experience the real substance of Habitat without actually showing up in your grungies for one of the construction days.  On my first time on the job my initial impression was actually kind of negative. Anyone who has ever used a framing nailer attached to an air compressor…or even seen one used…knows immediately that this is not the most efficient way to build a house. In fact, it can be a amusing watching a little 98 lb lady with a three dollar hammer tap-tap-tapping a 16 penny nail into a wall plate.

But you soon understand that efficiency isn’t what it’s all about. The number of houses is just the most visible metric of the program and the easiest to quantify. Much more important is what the houses mean to the owners and the community.  Most Rotarians are at least middle class earners and their choice of a home has more to do with preferences in style or neighborhood than anything else. For most of the Habitat clients it’s much more basic than that…it’s safe shelter that they can’t be forced to leave if they meet their obligations. And with a 2% foreclosure rate it’s clear that most do. The fact that the homes are nice is just gravy.

Habitat investments in neighborhoods are often the spark that encourages further development. Again that’s easy to see. What’s less visible is neighbor helping neighbor and the mutual concern for each other that develops and not just among neighbors on the block but in the neighborhood of man.

It’s also good for Rotary. I’ve been a member of this club for many years but if I had to point to a moment when I really became a Rotarian, it was during that first day or so swinging a cheap hammer with my fellow club members. There may have been a wide, wide range of construction skills but there was plenty of big, big hearts.

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