Chatham County

How a labor of love is building an affordable housing neighborhood in Pittsboro.

Chatham Habitat for Humanity building more homes, this time in Pittsboro

Volunteer Val Gist explains the joys and benefits of teamwork building homes for those less fortunate. She was part of an all women crew working on two new homes.
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Volunteer Val Gist explains the joys and benefits of teamwork building homes for those less fortunate. She was part of an all women crew working on two new homes.

Val Gist wears her "Habit for Humanity" work T-shirts with pride. She has more than she can count.

They remind her that she's helping a family on its way to owning a home.

"Everybody deserves a good place to live, and certainly people understand that," Gist said. "It is essential to help people who just don't have the resources starting out."

Gist, who lives at Legacy at Jordan Lake, and a group of neighborhood friends who call themselves "The Ladies of Legacy" were out at the job site east of downtown Pittsboro moving lumber and erecting walls for the first two houses in what could become a 65-house neighborhood.

Gist was inspired to begin supporting Habitat by former President Jimmy Carter during the 1980s. Now retired, she devotes more time volunteering since moving to Chatham County about five years ago.

She's learned some carpentry skills. She's installed flooring, plumbing and electrical. But there's no roofing — she's afraid of heights.

"You've got to have organizations like Habitat because the government can't do it all," she said. "And then some people don't want the government to do it all. I understand that, too. But somebody has to."

Affordable housing should be a basic right, Gist said. Montgomery County, Maryland, where she previously lived, had rules requiring large-scale developers to provide affordable-housing options.

"I always thought that was a good idea," Gist said

Currently, no such rules exist in Chatham, only the voluntary Compact Communities Ordinance. Briar Chapel developers used it to build more densely in some areas by offering some homes that were more affordable.

A growing need

Last summer the Chatham County Housing Committee finished a year-long study that found the county's renters needed the most help. Currently, apartments make up just 5 percent of housing units in the county, after single-family homes (80 percent) and mobile homes (15 percent).

If Chatham County is going to address the need for more affordable housing, it is going to need different players in the game.

Chatham County Habitat for Humanity builds eight to 10 houses per year — far fewer than the county needs and not exactly the solution to cover the rental shortage.

Executive director Jerry Whortan knows the challenges.

"Whenever we finish one home, it seems like we fall 10 more behind," Whortan said. "It's a difficult thing right now because there aren't that many who are building affordable housing. And the need is increasing exponentially."

Pittsboro Town Commissioner Pamela Baldwin said the need for affordable housing is one of the greatest challenges for the town if it is to retain its small-town character.

"Affordable housing is on everybody's mind," Baldwin said. "We're facing it now. All across the state, other towns are facing it."

The two houses Habitat is currently building should appraise at about $120,000, Whortan said. That would put them at just under half of the median home price in Chatham County, roughly $268,000, according to Habitat builds most of its houses in the 25 to 65 percent of median-price range to meet its measure of "affordable," Whortan said.

Rising costs

Habitat tries to build in municipalities water and sewer connections. It can put four houses on the same amount of land in town compared with only one that could be built with a well and septic tank outside of town.

But even for Habitat, building affordable housing is becoming more difficult.

When the organization bought the 27-acre property in Pittsboro about six years ago, it cost a lot less than it would today.

"We got this parcel of land at pre-Chatham Park prices," Whortan said. "We paid about $20,000 per acre. But now that Chatham Park has come in, and it's not a knock on Chatham Park, this would be about $35,000 or $40,000 an acre."

Chatham Park is an upscale 7,100-acre development that could increase Pittsboro's population by 60,000 during the next 25 years. More than 22,000 new homes could be built.

More people means more demand for housing, which makes the chase for property keen.

"Finding property in town that meets our needs is becoming more difficult," Whortan said.

Moving forward

Habitat would like to partner with other affordable housing builders to bring a mixture of options to the neighborhood, including affordable rentals, Whortan said. If that does not happen, they will continue to build single-family houses until they run out of room.

Whortan would like to see the county move aggressively with its proposed Affordable Housing Fund. The county commissioners are setting the fund up with $200,000 in the upcoming budget. The money will help bring other players into the affordable housing market to help with with land acquisition, housing development, preservation, weatherization, rehab and renter support.

Pittsboro is tackling affordable housing with its own committee that also includes two members from Chatham Park. They are looking at tax credits among other options for builders who offer affordable housing, said Pittsboro Commissioner Michael Fiocco. Chatham Park's developers have only guaranteed that 1 percent of their housing units will fall into the "affordable" category but have said more could be offered if the right business climate evolves.

"Right now Chatham County is not seen as a good investment for affordable housing because there haven't been programs in place," Whortan said. "But it is getting better. I think we'll see others come in when the county sets up the trust fund. We don't want to be the only affordable housing option in Chatham County. We want to be one of many groups working to bring affordable housing to Chatham County."