Housing Divided, Part 10: Nonprofits pitch in to help families find a home

Jack Queen
Ed Williams, executive director of Summit Habitat for Humanity, says his organization champions homeownershipas a way to build community and help people rise out of poverty. He says he would like to see that be a bigger part of the housing conversation.
Jack Queen / |

Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a 13-part series. Installments will appear each Thursday in the Summit Daily.

Throughout this series, we have documented the struggles of Summit County workers and families brought on by the severe shortage of affordable housing options: families on the brink of homelessness or relocation, resort workers turning down dream jobs for lack of a place to live and even employers feeling the pinch trying to keep workers on the books.

It’s a story that’s been told a hundred times here: rent goes up, tenants pack up and leave, sometimes for another county or even state. These stories illustrate the sobering fact that, beyond the manicured resort town streets lined with boutiques and brunch spots, poverty and instability linger: A full 59 percent of households in Summit live below the area median income (AMI) and another 39 percent fall below 80 percent AMI.

Those numbers come from a housing needs assessment that was commissioned by the county and released in October. Its findings demonstrated the shortage of affordable units and rapidly rising rents that have taken a heavy toll on many who live and work in the county.

With the market pricing people out, the county and local governments have stepped up to find solutions and alleviate the host of problems that stem from a tight housing market. But those efforts take time, and there is only so much that public servants can do to stem the rising tide. That’s where local nonprofits have come in to help close the gap and bring some lasting stability to families.

The Family Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC) has been providing a host of services to families for years, from its food bank to its child care classes to an emergency relief fund for people facing financial crisis.

Now, with help from The Summit Foundation and Summit Combined Housing Authority, the group has trained its sights on a new target: getting units off of the short-term rental market and available again as long-term housing options. That’s in response to the growing popularity of services like AirBnB and VRBO, which make it easier for landlords to get higher returns by renting out their units to vacationers.

“Landlords renting for the weekend can ask for $700 for a one-bedroom unit, which is definitely more than they can get for a long-term rental,” said FIRC employee Gaston Feuereisen, who works on the newly created Housing Works Initiative.

The program encourages landlords to rent their properties to families long-term by taking care of the tenant vetting process and helping ensure they will be good renters.

“A lot of the people in the county have a bad rap — they’ll have parties and make a mess of the place, damaging it,” Feuereisen said. “A lot of homeowners are frustrated by that and go to STR (short-term rental) to keep a closer eye on these people.”

Housing Works reduces the risks of long-term tenants for landlords by requiring tenants to take a “Ready to Rent” class that outlines their responsibilities — and rights — as tenants before moving in, allowing monthly home inspections by the housing authority and meeting with FIRC every six months. FIRC also takes care of the background and credit checks.

The program is eligible to those with an annual household income between $40,000 and $100,000 who also have kids and year-round employment in the county. There are currently 11 families that have found long-term housing through Housing Works, with another two on the way.

Coupled with the menu of services FIRC has provided for years, the program is shaping up to be an effective way of rolling back the trend toward short-term and renting and creating more long-term options.

Summit Habitat for Humanity, meanwhile, is quietly taking the work of getting families into stable housing one step further by turning them from renters into full-blown homeowners.

“There is no doubt that renting has a place in any community,” said Summit Habitat executive director Ed Williams. “But the cycle of renting, especially when there’s rent control, doesn’t encourage people to excel. You can strive for more through homeownership. It encourages people to look for something better in life. A statistically demonstrated path people can use to break the cycle of poverty is homeownership.”

That’s the universal credo of Habitat for Humanity, a group that touts the myriad benefits of owning a home, including better health, higher graduation rates for children and greater civic engagement. People who own their homes can also use the value to grow their wealth, and a house can also provide an important source of financing.

Most important, however, is the sense of community that homeownership fosters.

“Creating that stability creates community,” he said. “And stability is good for health, it’s good for children who get to stay in the same school district.”

To that end, Habitat for Humanity focuses on acquiring land, typically from foreclosures or vacancies, and building homes for people who are willing to pitch in 100 hours of “sweat equity” by helping with construction.

Donations from local businesses, foundations and community members help fund those activities, in addition to revenue from Habitat Re-Stores, where the organization sells second-hand furniture and building materials donated from local businesses.

The Summit County Re-Store, however, full of almost exclusively furniture, is a little different. Here, Habitat gets a lot of donations of old furniture due to the high turnover of vacation homes and the need to clear out the old, and perhaps a little out-of-style, love seats and dinner tables.

The uniquely tight real estate and housing markets in Summit have also forced Habitat to adapt its usual modus operandi; since its founding here in 1995, the group has built four new homes, but last year Habitat shifted gears to acquiring existing properties and renovating them rather than starting from scratch.

Another plank of Summit Habitat’s strategic pivot is its Brush with Kindness program, which helps homeowners make critical repairs to their homes.

“We’re quietly making inroads into this issue,” said Williams, who spearheaded Summit Habitat’s innovative new approach after moving from a Habitat affiliate in Indianapolis two years ago.

Under his leadership, the group moved a multi-generation family into a three-bedroom, two-bath home earlier this month.

Williams and Summit Habitat hope that these efforts, however small, can ensure that Summit County doesn’t become a revolving door of people renting and working here for a couple of years and then moving somewhere cheaper to buy their first home.

Housing Works, which is still currently in its first pilot year, hopes to expand its service over the next two years. The interest is certainly there: FIRC says 259 prospective tenants have contacted them about the program since its inception in July, while 45 landlords have expressed interest in participating.

The work these nonprofits are doing is small in the context of the looming challenge Summit faces in getting housing costs under control. But with a problem this big, everyone needs to pitch in, from governments to landlords to the philanthropic groups that donate their time and money to addressing whatever needs present themselves in the community.

“What happened was, we were seeing what has happened in our community with housing, so we dove in,” said The Summit Foundation director of development Kasey Provorse. “Ultimately, we had to start somewhere.”

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