CHAMPAIGN — Owning her own home is a dream that used to hover out of Tamika Dorris' reach.
That is, until she rolled up her sleeves and started building her own house with the help of Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County and an army of volunteers.
A 38-year-old single Champaign mom, Dorris is the local Habitat's 65th home partner, which means she helped with the construction and will be financing the home purchase with a zero-interest loan directly through Habitat.
Typically a builder of a few houses a year, Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County is preparing to launch a more ambitious three-year building program that will include six to nine houses a year with the help of a new $2 million grant and local fundraising.
Sheila Dodd, the organization's executive director, says the need for more affordable housing in Habitat's target building area — which takes in much of Champaign-Urbana — is great. But these houses aren't hand-outs.
"A lot of people think we give our houses away, and we don't," she says.
Habitat for Humanity is a Christian housing ministry focused on creating home-ownership opportunities for working people who don't earn enough to cover their living expenses along with the cost of a conventional down payment and an interest-bearing loan.
Dorris, a mother of five who works as a snack bar attendant at the University of Illinois Beckman Institute, says about 230 people helped her build her house on weekends, and meeting these volunteers was the best part of the construction process.
"I've met wonderful people in Champaign that I didn't even know existed," she says.
Her four-bedroom house at 1411 Beech St., U, was finished recently, and move-in day is coming up in about a week.
The house comes with some big advantages, Dorris says: It's disability-accessible for her mother, who uses a wheelchair and walker and lives with the family, and the $500 monthly mortgage payments are going to run $200 cheaper than her Section 8 housing rent.
"It's been a great experience for me and my family," she adds. "We're all so excited."
Getting a house
Dodd says Habitat typically builds houses that are 1,100 to 1,300 square feet, with three or four bedrooms and without garages.
Candidates for a Habitat house are evaluated on their need, ability to make the mortgage payments (which include taxes and insurance) and willingness to partner, the organization says.
Home buyers also need to save $1,000 — half for the house down payment and half for insurance — and meet other conditions, among them being out of Chapter 13 bankruptcy for at least a year and out of Chapter 7 bankruptcy for at least two years, and undergo 30 hours of education on such topics as home maintenance and household budgeting.
Careful selection has resulted in just one foreclosure since the local Habitat built its first house in 1991, Dodd said.
Buyers who sell in the first 10 years must split the equity with Habitat because the houses typically appraise right off the bat for about $30,000 more, due to all the free labor and, sometimes, the free land, Dodd said.
These aren't just buildings, Dodd says.
Decent, affordable housing breaks the cycle of poverty, improves health, physical safety and security, frees money for other essential family needs and provides a sense of stability and dignity that grows, according to Habitat for Humanity.
Typically a house is a family's biggest financial asset, and a house can be a big stabilizing influence for children and family life, Dodd says.
Plus, partner families have their own elbow grease invested, and they know their home well.
"They know more about the construction of their home than the average family, because they've been involved in every step of the way," Dodd adds.
Kory and Jackie Rankin of Champaign also now know more about home construction now, because they helped build Dorris' house.
"I know that it's the right thing to do. People need to help each other," Kory Rankin, 25, says. "The world is a tough place to live in, and everybody needs help now and then from a stranger."
This is his second Habitat home build, he says. His wife, Jackie Rankin, 24, says this was her first Habitat build, and she and her husband have both done several mission trips for other organizations.
Husband and wife both say they've enjoyed this experience and learned much.
"Just last weekend, we learned how to put a doorknob on a door handle," Jackie Rankin said last month. "It's nice to get experience like that."
Filling more need
A new house built through Habitat costs $85,000 to $90,000, Dodd says.
In comparison, the median price of a house sold through the Champaign County Association of Realtors in July was $140,175.
While lower-priced homes are out there, coming up with the down payment and getting approval from a bank for the loan tends to stand in the way of buying for Habitat clients, Dodd says.
To help fill more of the need, her organization hopes to expand the $2 million grant into a $5.2 million building program over three years with the help of local donors and corporate sponsors.
The new grant funding through the state attorney general's office is coming courtesy of a $70 million settlement fund intended to help Illinois communities hurt by the national mortgage foreclosure crisis.
Included in the total $5.2 million program, in addition to six to nine new houses a year, will be an education program for home-buying partners that United Way of Champaign County had been funding, which will need to be expanded. Also included will be a $350,000 home rehab program to fix 18 existing homes in Habitat's targeted neighborhoods, Dodd said.
The cost of the new houses is going to run higher than a typical Habitat house — possibly as much as double — because the grant money will require all work typically done by skilled trades on the houses to be paid at union scale. And there may also be costs for buying land and tearing down old structures.
Dodd says she has planned new home building costs from $160,000 to $200,000 each under the grant program, depending on free land availability, possible demolition costs and Mother Nature's willingness to keep a lid on disasters that can drive up building material costs.
Prospects for free land from either city — at least for all the houses Habitat has in mind — aren't looking bright.
Greg Skaggs, Champaign community development specialist, says the city gave Habitat three lots in 2011. Since then, only small right-of-way properties have been available, and there's only the possibility — not yet approved — of one possible lot for Habitat in the Taylor Thomas subdivision coming up, he says.
Jen Gonzalez, home grant coordinator for the city's Community Development Services Department, says Urbana has donated about two city-owned lots a year to Habitat and may be able to keep up at two to three lots a year.
There are properties out there to acquire, she says, but with grant cuts, it will be a question of how much acquisition and donating Urbana can afford.
Gonzalez says she has high hopes for Habitat's larger building program.
"It would make a big impact on the community," she adds.
Habitat's ReStore, a used home-furnishings store at 119 E. University Ave., C, brings in about $500,000 a year and covers the overhead costs, including salaries and utilities, for the local Habitat affiliate, with some money left over to put toward home builds, Dodd says.
Mortgage payments from Habitat's home buyers brings in about $12,000 a month, all of which is recycled into new projects, she says.
To keep enough home builds going, organizations taking on these projects have traditionally been asked to raise funding for the entire project cost as well as supply the volunteer labor, but that's a big obligation for a small organization or church and has tended to limit home builds, Dodd says.
Thanks to the new grant money, Habitat will be able to ease the fundraising obligation to about $35,000 per home, she says.
"It makes it easier, and especially for the churches," she says. "They've had a lot of demands put on them."