An Affordable Path to Home Ownership
Owning your own home is a cherished dream in the United States, but in the last decade, rising real estate prices have priced far too many potential homeowners out of the market and driven the cost of rentals sky high as well. But since 1976, one nonprofit — Habitat for Humanity — has stood consistently strong for safe, affordable homes built for people in need. Today Habitat, an ecumenical Christian nonprofit that is open to all, is the nation’s largest homebuilder. It may also be the best option for wheelchair users to own an affordable, accessible home.
The secret to Habitat’s success is simple. Approved homebuyers make a down payment with “sweat equity” — 300-500 hours of work, with help from family and friends, instead of cash. The work can be done on their own home, someone else’s, or by assisting Habitat Humanity in another way. Homeowners also reap the benefits of donations and construction help from volunteers, as well as financing by Habitat with zero percent interest. All of this adds up to unbeatable prices, the lowest possible monthly payments, and feelings of long-lasting gratefulness and connectedness with family, friends and community.
A History of Building Accessible Homes
Early awareness of the need for accessible homes came about largely as the result of Atlanta, Georgia, advocate Eleanor Smith’s groundbreaking initiative, Concrete Change, which advocated for each new home built by Habitat for Humanity to incorporate its “visitability” guidelines. These guidelines call for basic wheelchair access — a no-step entrance, wide doorways and a clear path to the bathroom.
A major breakthrough came when Smith’s group secured pledges from Habitat’s Atlanta affiliate in 1989 and the city of Atlanta in 1992 to build a neighborhood of 47 basic homes in keeping with Concrete Change’s “visitability” guidelines. By 2008, it was estimated more than 800 Habitat for Humanity homes had been built to be visitable in Atlanta.
Not long after those first pledges, in 1994, physical therapist Sandee Rogers and occupational therapist Ruth Fierman, both employed by Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, teamed up with Habitat for Humanity’s main office in nearby Americus, to build Habitat’s first accessible home designed for a specific wheelchair user. From a list of potential applicants, the Habitat office chose Melvin Hardrick, a 35-year-old T5-6 para who had been injured in 1991. His need was obvious. Following rehab, Hardrick was discharged to his existing home, where he, his wife and four children lived in a high-crime neighborhood in a cramped apartment with an inaccessible bathroom — a nearly impossible situation for Hardrick, a manual wheelchair user.
Rogers and Fierman took Habitat’s basic accessible floor plan, which included wide doorways and more space in the bathroom, and modified it specifically for Hardrick by adding a sloped, graded no-step entrance, a wraparound porch, expanded interior space with an open floor plan, wider hallways, accordion-style doors in the bedroom, a roll-under sink in the bathroom with more space, height-appropriate switches and outlets, and more. To make it all happen, Shepherd’s staff took on the fundraising responsibility and contributed $25,000 for the build, which in the mid-1990s, combined with other donated materials and volunteer labor, funded nearly the entire project.
In 2002, Minnesota’s Twin Cities Habitat affiliate teamed up with the Courage Kenny Rehab Institute to take the concept of accessibility a step further. They built an accessible home complete with assistive tech devices throughout for Lisa Baron and Scott Dehn, both of whom had cerebral palsy — proof that the national nonprofit’s awareness and willingness to work with individual homeowners with disabilities was evolving.
The Twin Cities affiliate is one of the largest in the nation, building upwards of 50 homes per year since 1985. “Each year, we build one or two accessible homes,” says Kaitlyn Dormer, communications director for the affiliate. “In these cases, homebuyers are matched to a property before construction begins so we can tailor the home design to their needs. Our architect meets with the homebuyers and an occupational therapist to identify design elements to be added to the house to adequately provide independence, safety and health needs.”
A Contemporary Duplex
While these pioneering Habitat homes benefitted from being located in urban areas with well-known rehabilitation and independent living programs, the widespread growth of the nonprofit has brought the concept of “a hand up, not a handout” to small towns in rural areas as well. Habitat’s model works because it depends on the generosity of everyday people wherever they reside. Whole communities driven by local churches usually start the ball rolling, but volunteers and homebuyers come from every ethnicity and belief system. Good will is infectious.
Usually prospective homeowners apply for a single home to be built, but in late 2013, Jason Cantonwine, a 44-year-old Marine vet and C5 quad, and Shelley Jaspering, 41, a C7 quad, joined forces and applied to have a duplex built in Ames, Iowa — one unit for each of them.
At the time, Cantonwine, who had been discharged from the service in 1996 and injured in 1997, lived in an apartment. “My mom and stepdad had retrofitted the 1970s apartment for me, but it was small,” he says. “I pretty much maintained that for 20 years with help from a whole lot of revolving door live-in attendants. But lack of space and privacy were becoming a big issue.”
Jaspering, injured in 2005, had gone home after rehab to live with her parents. She wanted to be on her own but ended up living with them for two years because they couldn’t find a suitable apartment. So her parents purchased an older home and rented it to her. “I had a helper and a roommate and lived there for seven years, but couldn’t afford repairs and maintenance on the old house. It was too expensive,” says Jaspering. “My parents were losing money and I couldn’t pay the mortgage.”
Both Cantonwine and Jaspering looked into Section 8 housing, but there was a two-year waiting list, and the rent was still too high. So together they went to the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, not knowing what to expect. “They ran our numbers, including valuing a lot of work from our families, and a lot of contributions,” says Cantonwine. “My family knew Jaspering’s, we knew of each other and everything kind of fell into place. The executive director, Sandi Risdal, seemed very excited about the idea of our going in together to build a duplex. We were the first ones in our area to do it.”
Risdal willingly modified the usual sweat equity requirements because neither Cantonwine nor Jaspering could do construction work. “But our families did work on the build, which counted toward our sweat equity requirements,” says Cantonwine. The time from application to the actual build was about a year or so, and they moved into their duplex in late 2014.
Unbeatable Economics of Habitat Homes
Habitat homeowners are not given a home — they must buy it. To make certain that homeowners are able to make payments consistently, Habitat requires that each applicant be able to make mortgage payments that are no more than 30 percent of their monthly income. Both Cantonwine and Jaspering had steady, part-time jobs. Cantonwine is a dispatcher who works 25 hours a week for a paratransit company, while Jaspering works for Wheatsfield Cooperative, a community-owned grocery store, doing computer work with pricing and sales.
In addition, both families had the kind of combined work experience that is especially valuable in the Habitat model. “My dad’s an electrician, and we knew a lot of people in construction, so they were able to donate labor, and others made in-kind contributions,” says Jaspering. Cantonwine’s family and other volunteers also made significant labor and in-kind contributions.
The total construction cost of Cantonwine’s duplex unit was about $155,000, counting the value of labor and contributions such as appliances, roofing, concrete and whatever went into the house, including furniture. But Cantonwine’s mortgage loan, purchased from Habitat, was only about $110,000, with a second, forgiveable mortgage over and above that amount.
“Forgiveable” means each year a portion of the second mortgage is forgiven. In Cantonwine’s case, this comes to about $45,000. As long as payments on the first mortgage are made, the second mortgage will incrementally “disappear” — and the homeowner will have paid zero dollars out of pocket on the second when the term expires. For Cantonwine, this resulted in a monthly first mortgage payment of slightly more than $600, including taxes and insurance. After four years of payments, his principal balance has already dropped nearly $20,000, to a current total owed of $91,000, and the unit’s value is now well over $155,000. Home equity builds super-fast compared to conventional loans, mainly due to volunteer labor, in-kind contributions and the zero interest factor. “Every dollar paid goes to ownership of the home,” says Cantonwine.
Jaspering’s loan was similar. Her total cost was $160,000, slightly higher than Cantonwine’s due to upgrades on flooring and a fully accessible kitchen. Her payments are $620 per month. By contrast, rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Ames areas is at least $700. And there is no comparison when it comes to size, quality and lifestyle enhancement.
Now I have my own space,” says Jaspering. “I feel like more of a normal 40-year-old. I do my own laundry, do what I want when I want. I can have my life as an independent woman. Friends can come over, or I can meet people and go out. I like the location. I can roll to work if the weather is good. If I wanted to, I could take a bus. I’m near groceries, entertainment, a hospital. An ideal location.”
In all, hundreds of people pitched in to make the duplex happen in a way that was affordable, accessible, and appropriate to both Cantonwine’s and Jaspering’s needs. They each have a concrete parking space for a van. Cantonwine was able to have a basement built for his live-in attendant, and Jaspering got the kitchen she wanted.
“I cannot say enough about the Habitat for Humanity program,” says Cantonwine. “Globally and locally. I’m very thankful. For people to come together, whole communities, and do something so worthwhile. It’s amazing stuff.”
A Path to Independence
Tess Kessinger, 48, another C5 quad, has been a Habitat homeowner since 2017. After being injured in 2006, she rehabbed at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. She was one of the first subjects to do treadmill work as part of Susan Harkema’s epidural stimulation research. “It really helped me — muscle tone, weight, increased lung capacity,” she says. “The group I was in went on to be like a second family. Most of my meaningful relationships have come out of my meeting people at Frazier. They finally hired me in 2013 because I refused to go away.”
At first, following her injury, she had to live with her parents on their farm in Palmyra, Indiana, located just north of Louisville, in a modified living room with bathroom. “I was managing OK but didn’t want to live with my parents or in a nursing home. I always had the will to be independent but not the way.”
Then in 2015, someone told her mother that Habitat was open to building homes for disabled people. She applied to the nearest Habitat chapter in New Albany, Indiana, and was accepted.
“For my sweat equity I contacted restaurants and helped set up food for catered fundraising events, and food, snacks and soft drinks for the builders,” says Kessinger. “The University of Louisville and Frazier staff put groups together to help volunteers on my build. I had eight or 10 build dates with different volunteer groups. My dad did over 300 hours of sweat equity. He’s a licensed electrician, but he and two or three others were the core group swinging hammers and doing whatever had to be done.”
The state vocational rehabilitation department also helped with certain necessities. “I love my shower, my favorite room, all tile,” she says. “Voc Rehab suggested a certain fan. It sucks all the moisture out of the bathroom.” And then there’s a feature straight out of her farm background — sliding barn doors. “I have barn doors on all of the rooms. Track doors. They are super light. Even the dog knows how to use them. She will use her nose to open the door and come into the bathroom.”
The open floor plan is inviting, especially for a power chair user. “When you come in the front door, you can see the door on the other side of the house. No walls to get in the way of having multiple visitors over. To accommodate my van lift, they gave me an oversized lot with a large carport,” she says.
Kessinger’s mortgage payments for all this are just $497 a month. They are so low because they’re spread out over a 40-year mortgage at zero percent interest. “I would never be able to rent even a small apartment for $500.”
All in all, Kessinger is approaching her dream of complete independence. Now all she needs is for the state of Indiana to provide adequate attendant care. “I thought it would be easier — there are 47 state licensed homecare agencies, but only seven with skilled nursing and only one could take me, and they require me to have full-time care, which I don’t need and they can’t fill,” she says. “It would cost the state less if I had part-time attendants, but when I talk to the Medicaid people, they just say ‘we feel for you.’”
For now, to get by, her mom stays with her two nights per week, and on weekends she goes home to the family farm. But the upside prevails: “I feel like I’m more part of a community now,” she says. “People come to help from down the street. You don’t always get that out on a farm.”
Brianna’s New Home
When it comes to number of homes built, Habitat’s Lake County, South Dakota, affiliate ranks in the top 10 percent of the 500-plus affiliates serving populations of 50,000 or less. “We were founded in 1995, built our first home the next year, and now we have completed 66 homes, with five under construction and two already approved for next year,” says executive director Dan McColley.
One of those homes is being built in Madison, a town of only 7,000. When it is complete, it will be the 10th Habitat home in the small rural town. “It’s for a mom and her grown daughter, Brianna, who has cerebral palsy, and her brother,” says McColley.
Since Brianna Friesz has some cognitive issues and uses a power chair, the design is built around her needs. Besides the usual basic accessibility features, Friesz will have a huge roll-in closet, private access to a fully accessible bathroom with roll-in shower, electric cooktop, side-opening oven and pull-out shelving in the kitchen, roll under sinks, and one more custom feature made for her. “We built a large front screened-in porch so she can enjoy the greenspace outside, without being in the bugs and such,” says McColley. “We wouldn’t have done that for anyone else.”
Even the lot was specially selected for Friesz since it was located next to the greenspace. The cost hasn’t been set yet since construction is still underway. But you can bet it will be a super deal. “Typical mortgage payments are around $400 monthly, plus taxes and insurance,” says McColley. “Compare that to the average cost of a rental here — $941 a month.”
Tiny Homes for Wheelers?
Tiny homes are all the rage for minimalist millennials, so why not offer a 576 square foot Habitat home to wheelchair users? Of course, tight space for wheelers definitely has its limits, but with an open floor plan and creative thinking, the improbable just might become possible.
Take a look at the artist’s rendering of the Redbud House, a small home model designed by Harvey Harman and built by the Chatham, North Carolina, affiliate. With a little imagination and a ramp or a graded no-step entrance, you might be the proud owner of your own home for as little as $75,000 with no down payment other than sweat equity and monthly payments of as little as $250 (not including taxes and insurance) on a 25-year mortgage.
For more, visit: chathamhabitat.org/small-house