The Power is Now

Habitat for Humanity thrives despite challenges of real estate market – The Sheridan Press

SHERIDAN — Carla Trier moved into her house, constructed by Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Bighorns, on March 3, 2020. A week later, she was working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trier was moving out of an apartment that was cold and moldy and recovering from an abdominal hysterectomy while operating a local nonprofit in the middle of a pandemic. During this time of chaos, the home was — and continues to be —  “a nice refuge for me,” Trier said.

“It was a huge blessing to me, to be in a safe place that was comfortable and new with nothing going wrong,” Trier said. “There is just huge value in it.”

Now more than ever, Habitat has received inquiries from people like Trier in need of a safe, affordable place to live, according to Executive Director Christine Dietrich. The work of the organization is continuing at a steady clip, but the nonprofit is also facing a barrage of challenges related to a low supply of available lots and high demand for new construction.

The pandemic has brought a “consistent flow” of new residents to Sheridan from Colorado and the West Coast, according to Bruce Garber, broker with and owner of Century 21 BHJ Realty. This has led to a high demand for housing, which has driven up local real estate prices and increased local construction. The high demand for construction materials —  coupled with a low supply due to a shutdown of factories in the early days of the pandemic  — has increased construction materials costs substantially.

In other words, it has never been more expensive to construct a house, Dietrich said, and for Habitat, that means more fundraising than ever before.

“At Habitat, anything beyond what is affordable for our partner families is what we have to fundraise for each house,” Dietrich said. “As that gap continues to get bigger, it puts more pressure on me to cover that difference. At a certain point, it’s not sustainable anymore, and we have to make hard decisions. The first and most practical one is to slow down production, but that’s also the last one we want to do. Our goal is to ramp up production, not scale it down.”

Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Bighorns addresses the need for affordable housing by providing home ownership opportunities for Sheridan families in need. The organization serves families whose income is between 30% and 60% of the current median income, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Wyoming.

Habitat currently constructs three houses a year, Dietrich said. Currently, 95% of the loans they originate for those houses have to be subsidized by Habitat dollars in some shape or form with the organization raising an average of $80,000 per house.

“So we’re looking at around $240,000 a year just to cover the subsidy,” Dietrich said. “That doesn’t include operational expenses or ReStore expenses or any of our other programs. Just the subsidy.”

Habitat covers these expenses through fundraising efforts and, while events like the recent Wolf Creek Wrangle help, the bulk of the dollars come from private individuals and businesses.

Dietrich thanked the community for “carrying Habitat through the last two years of COVID” but also noted Habitat wasn’t the only nonprofit needing additional help, which has put a strain on private giving.

“We have seen long-time donors not make a gift this year, but we have also recruited new ones,” Dietrich said. “We just have to be proactive.”

The organization has to be similarly proactive when finding lots to build on, according to board member Bob Utter. Utter, a longtime realtor who retired at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, said he has never seen lots in as high demand as they are now, which has required Habitat to change its tactics a bit.

“As a general rule, a nonprofit does not compete well in the open market,” Utter said. “And now we find ourselves in a very competitive market where a lot will sell almost immediately. So I’ve taken it on myself to look for other properties and contact people directly, and that’s worked well for us.”

Most recently, Habitat purchased eight lots in Ranchester for future development, Utter said. Habitat is also developing properties at the Trailside and Poplar Grove subdivisions in Sheridan.

In addition to increased construction costs and lower availability of lots, the organization is also facing supply chain issues — particularly for appliances — that are delaying construction, Dietrich said.

“In construction, time is money, and the faster I can turn around a house build, the faster I can put a homeowner into it,” Dietrich said. “But the supply chain issues are slowing down our timeline to build a home, which impacts our ability to host volunteers because we don’t know when the supplies will arrive. We’re not the only business seeing that, but it definitely impacts us.”

One thing that is not in short supply is aid from the community, both financially and in volunteer hours, Dietrich said. And that support is key to the organization’s continued success, Utter said.

“Be a Habitat supporter,” Utter said. “That could mean participating in fundraisers or working with Habitat on acquisition of land or volunteering for builds to keep our cost of construction down. Every act of generosity matters, now more than ever.”

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