KILN, Miss. -- An ambitious plan to replace some of the thousands of homes lost to Hurricane Katrina is quickly taking shape on computer screens, drawing boards and back roads here in Hancock County.
Habitat for Humanity, the 30-year-old Christian-based nonprofit popularized by former President Jimmy Carter, plans to build “thousands and thousands” of homes via its self-help program during the next several years in hurricane-devastated communities across the South.
That’s the word from Larry Gluth, a Habitat executive from the group’s home office in Americus, Ga. “We’re looking at upwards of 1,000 homes between Beaumont, Texas, and Mobile over the next 18 months,” says Gluth, a vice president with Habitat’s "Operation Home Delivery," a unit created specifically to respond to needs in the hurricane zones.
The hunt for land is in the hands of Wendy McDonald, a diminutive, silver-haired, indefatigable Bay St. Louis native who seems to have her finger in every pie of Hancock County’s hurricane recovery efforts. After the storm struck, McDonald, 53, put a career in Houston on hold to return to her hometown and help form Hancock County Citizens in Action, a grassroots volunteer group whose chief mission is to cut the red tape between government agencies and speed relief to all parts of the community.
But the housing mission seems especially dear to her heart -- Katrina exacted a shocking toll on the homes of her parents and other relatives -- and her connections with local government officials are giving Habitat a leg up in its search for a key ingredient in its recipe for the “decent, affordable shelter” it touts in its literature: land.
On a recent day, in a darkened room at the temporary county government complex of portable buildings here, chief Hancock County building official Mickey Lagasse scrolled through screen after screen of tax roll information to help McDonald and Gluth identify potential lots and tracts for Habitat projects.
Looking for reasonably priced lots
“We’re kind of land poor in Bay St. Louis and Waveland,” McDonald explained. Many now-bare lots in those towns will be too expensive for Habitat’s program if they come on the market, or they’ll be in flood zones where the organization does not intend to build. Instead, the group is eying rural areas where they hope to secure lots for $2,000 to $5,000 apiece.
“Everywhere I go I say, ‘Anybody got any land they want to sell to Habitat,’” McDonald says with a laugh. “Everybody just kind of looks at you.”
After meeting with Lagasse, she and Gluth went out to inspect some property in person. Finding a “For Sale” sign amid a stretch of undeveloped lots in unincorporated Bayside Park, they spread topographic maps on the hood of a car to determine flood-zone data.
“It would be worth looking into,” McDonald said, running her finger along contour lines on the map.
In addition to elevation, the group’s main criteria for selecting lots include residential zoning, paved roads, and availability of water and sewer. Plugging those factors into his computer, the county’s Lagasse can help McDonald and Gluth streamline Habitat’s search. Of particular potential may be existing but undeveloped subdivisions where “a lot of land speculators came in and bought lots in the ’70s and ’80s,” Lagasse says.
Opportunity for 'serious revitalization'
The county is happy to help Habitat because, even beyond filling the great housing void left by Katrina, it sees an opportunity for the program to provide “serious revitalization” in many areas, Lagasse explains.
Gluth says Habitat’s post-hurricane efforts across the South should become much more visible soon. After two months of organizing, planning and shopping for land, the hammering and sawing, actually overseen by local affiliates, is about to begin in earnest. “Right now, we have roughly 100 lots that are secured” in Mississippi's storm-struck Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, he says.
In addition to seeking more land, the group is looking for development partners from the private and government sectors and making arrangements to house the multitudes of out-of-area construction volunteers that will be needed to help build the homes.
When she’s not running down lots, McDonald is marketing Habitat’s plans to potential participants everywhere from chance meetings on the street to Citizens in Action forums.
“It’s not a give-away program,” she said in a presentation at one recent town hall meeting here in Kiln. “It’s a mortgage.” Applicants must have a down payment and an income that enables them to pay a mortgage on an interest-free loan. The must be willing to invest about 350 hours of “sweat equity,” either working on their own home or another Habitat project. And they must agree to live in the home for a specified period of time before selling it.
The average Habitat home in the United States costs about $60,000. Gluth said he expects the typical mortgage for a home built in Habitat’s post-hurricane blitz to be about $50,000. Most of the homes will be about 1,100 square feet with three bedrooms and one bathroom.
At the Kiln meeting, McDonald stressed that the home will be solid and attractive. “These are houses you wouldn’t mind having next door to you,” she said. “These are houses you would be happy to live in.”
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