Habitat for Humanity of Dane County is hoping to embark on its largest project yet — a 62-acre development in fast-growing Sun Prairie that will include some 48 Habitat homes spread among four phases along with homes sold by traditional, for-profit home builders.
But as with any other developer, the opportunities for such large single-family-home projects could grow scarce as land prices rise with the Madison-area population and elected officials put more emphasis on denser, multifamily housing that is better for the environment and more amenable to mass transit.
While the 31-year-old Christian-rooted nonprofit has built more homes as part of a single project before, never has it taken on as much land as it has in the proposed Sun Prairie project.
Located northwest of the intersection of Town Hall Drive and East Main Street, or Highway 19, the property’s 125 lots would be built over eight years beginning in 2020, with 12 Habitat homes in each phase.
It’s not clear yet whether the Habitat homes would be spread among the homes built by for-profit home-builders — an approach that would be in line with the site-scattering philosophy of dispersing affordable housing.
“The philosophy is to have them scattered around,” said Habitat chief operating officer Steve Hanrahan. “I will tell you that the neighboring communities’ philosophy is that they should be isolated. The council doesn’t agree with that necessarily.”
Preliminary plans show streets in the existing neighborhoods to the west and north being extended into the property, about a quarter of which to the southeast is either wetlands or reserved for open space and parkland.
Across the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad to the south is nearly two acres that Habitat could sell off for commercial development — which would be another first for the organization.
The project doesn’t yet have one of those comforting-sounding monikers developers come up with for their subdivisions, but it does have some indication city officials are in favor of it.
The City Council on Tuesday was generally in agreement with a Planning Division recommendation to approve, although issues that still need to be worked out, according to Planning Director Tim Semmann, are the impacts of traffic at the site and provision of utilities. He thought the project could before the city Plan Commission in the fall.
Selling off 77 of the lots to private home builders will go some way toward paying for the project, which will require the installation of storm sewers, streets and other infrastructure, according to Hanrahan.
Habitat has had to put in at least some of the infrastructure in three other of its seven existing “planned communities” in Dane County.
Among those are the 57-home Twin Oaks on Madison’s Southeast Side and the 34 homes either built, planned or under construction at Renaissance on the Park in Fitchburg.
In all, the organization has built 287 homes, and 92% of their buyers are still in them — a sign, Habitat says, that its clients do not conform to stereotypes about the kinds of people who live in “low-income housing,” stereotypes that Habitat regularly has to confront and refute.
Habitat families are not given their homes gratis. They get 30-year mortgages to buy the homes at the values they are assessed at once they’re built, and homeowners must put in more than 300 hours of sweat equity before they move in. Qualifying hours include helping to build their homes, working in Habitat’s two ReStore outlets and working in Habitat’s office.
Monthly mortgage payments include taxes and are capped at about 30% of the homeowner’s income. If the amount needed to service the loan is higher than that cap, Habitat will carry a second, “silent” mortgage on the home, Hanrahan said. Federal or county funding can help with down payments.
“That’s how it becomes affordable. And as land prices go up faster than wages and as construction costs go up faster than wages,” he said, “what we’re seeing ... is our silent seconds are getting larger.”
As land prices increase and the amount of available land decreases, Habitat is likely to focus more on infill development or finding single lots within existing subdivisions to develop, Hanrahan said, and on townhome or condo-style development, but for families. Habitat homes have to have yards.
“The general consensus (is) it’s almost impossible, if not impossible, for a normal builder to build what’s considered to be an affordable home for those in the 30 to 60% of AMI (area median income),“ he said. “The land, the building materials cost and the actual construction expense puts things kind of out of reach.”
Despite such headwinds, Habitat has yet to turn anyone away who qualifies.
“What we tend to do to manage that is, when I started three years ago, we were recruiting four times a year,” said Habitat family services director Paul Sukenik. “Last year, we’re doing three times. We kind of slow that recruitment process down.”
Sukenik said 105 people attended Habitat’s last information session for aspiring home-buyers in May. Twenty-three families submitted applications, and about 20% or 25% of them will meet all the eligibility requirements.
“We try to make sure that we’re not accepting more than what we can meet,” Hanrahan said.
On Wednesday, “welcome to the neighborhood” door hangars made by students at nearby Lakeview Elementary School greeted families getting ready to move in later this month to three Habitat homes at the Tennyson Ridge on Madison’s North Side.
The project will eventually have 12 homes. Old National Bank contributed $250,000 toward the project, and Exact Sciences and The Evjue Foundation are the other major sponsors.
New homeowner Khue Thao said through an interpreter that he’s looking forward to putting up a fence and decorating his children’s rooms with dinosaur and fish images. He and his wife, Ka Xiong, are originally from Thailand and have five children ages 3 through 14. The family will be moving out of a smaller place at the Packer Townhomes, less than a mile south.
Chao Ly and KaNhia Khang, who are originally from Laos, will be living next door to them. Khang likes to cook, including traditional Southeast Asian foods such as pho — a kind of noodle soup with herbs and meat — and plans to take advantage of the extra space and sunlight of a corner lot to put in cilantro, potatoes, green onions and other foods for cooking.
When Habitat homes are dedicated, Habitat’s house-warming gift to families is either a book of faith of their choice or a cookbook with recipes from fellow Habitat families. On Wednesday, all three families opted for the cookbook.
Khang’s daughter, Pang Dee Thao, said her mom “is just really excited to decorate the house.” Pang Dee is 20 and studying radiology at UW-Milwaukee.
A single mother who works as a massage therapist and her two bi-racial children will be moving into the third home.
“If you look at Habitat families, you’re looking at Madison,” said Sukenik.