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Entrance to HouchensFirst house nears completion

The sign pointing to Habitat for Humanity’s Houchens Place on South Boston Road has been up for nearly two years, but the gate barring the gravel into the planned development has always been closed.

That’s about to change, as the first home on the 64-acre property is nearing completion, with two dozen more to follow. Habitat hopes to have a family in the first house by early this summer.

“Now that the subdivision is ready to go, we’re so excited,” Gail Morace, director of the selection committee, told a crowd of about 25 local residents who attended a prospective homeowners orientation at Fluvanna County Library Wednesday night (May 10).

Executive Director Mike Himes said the process to get the subdivision through the county’s approval process took longer than expected but was finally completed about two months ago. “Now we’re trying to find a lot of people to put in homes,” he said.

As Morace walked the audience through the process, it became clear that it can be arduous.

“Habitat does not give homes away,” she said. “That’s a myth.”

Instead, Habitat has three distinct roles: It builds homes with volunteer labor, it vets families for eligibility for low-interest USDA mortgages, and it prepares qualified families for homeownership.

For the potential homeowner, the process starts with paperwork. There’s an extensive application package. Morace’s selection committee looks at credit history, references and budget sheets. Those that meet basic guidelines come in for an interview and host a home visit in their current residence.

Acceptance rates vary from year to year, but Morace said that her committee approved five of the 12 applications they received in 2016.

Once partnered with Habitat, families are still some distance from moving day. “Most people take at least a year to get their credit to an acceptable level,” according to a handout provided at the orientation. “Once that happens, the wait could be anywhere from six months to several years, depending on how many people are in line ahead of you.”

While waiting, there’s plenty to be done. Given that lifelong renters are often unaware of the responsibility of homeownership, Habitat requires 75 hours of mandatory classes covering everything from basic maintenance to “decorating on a dime,” plus a course in financial management.

“Sweat equity” is an important aspect of Habitat’s philosophy. “You’re going to have to help build your house and other houses in the community,” said Himes. Each adult in the household is expected to give 150 hours.

“You won’t have to go up on the roof,” Morace reassured nervous audience members. “We won’t ask you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, and we can always find something for you to do.”
 Himes and Morace made it clear that Habitat wants their partner families to succeed. Low credit? “We have financial advisors.” Big family? “We currently build three-bedroom homes, but if you have a larger family, we could probably look at another floorplan.” Single person? “We accept applications from people who are single.”

If all goes as planned, within a couple of years, some of the people in the audience will be handed the keys to their energy-efficient, three bedroom, two bathroom ranch-style house on a quarter-acre lot. Affordability is key: On average, mortgages run $600 to $700 a month, and electricity costs $70 to $80 a month. Wells and septic systems keep the costs of utilities down.

Himes is excited by the potentials of Houchens Place. “It’s a phenomenal piece of property,” he said. While the group has already built a small five-home subdivision off Route 15, this project is significantly larger.

When the first family moves into the community early this summer, they’ll have plenty of solitude – at least at first. The group plans to build a second home by the end of the year, with two more to follow in 2018. Within the next five years, they hope to be completing five new homes per year.