LAKE COUNTRY - The largest building project in the 25-year history of Habitat for Humanity in the Okanagan is still on target for a January launch, despite an unexpected setback.
“We’re still hoping to start in January,” Habitat co-CEO Neil Smith said today, Oct. 11. “In another two weeks, the backend of our website will be open to start taking donations.”
Habitat rezoned land at 10618 Powley Ct. in downtown Lake Country so it could build 12 units instead of the eight allowed previously. Plans are for a fourplex, two triplexes and a duplex.
Since the organization was launched in the 1990s, it has only built 33 other units throughout the Okanagan.
This is, by far, Habitat’s largest single construction project as it significantly ramps up its building program. That has been made possible by the opening of three ReStore outlets in the Okanagan, with a fourth to open next year in Vernon.
But first, there is the Lake Country delay to contend with.
In order to squeeze 12 units onto the site, Habitat needed to build closer to the side and rear property lines. Last week, Lake Country council sent the development variance permit application back to staff for further discussion after a number of neighbours raised objections.
“We went through the first public information session back in February and there were no concerns whatsoever at that time,” Smith said. “It’s been six-and-a-half months since then and new people moved in on both sides who did not have that information."
Habitat is meeting with neighbours tonight, Oct. 11, to bring them up to speed on the project. Smith expects the full 12 units will be approved when the application returns to council. The earliest that might happen is Nov. 6.
Smith is confident the project can still break ground in January.
The Habitat model is for low-income families to pitch in 500 hours of labour in exchange for a down payment and a no-interest mortgage. That labour can be at ReStore outlets, or helping out on site, often with clean up or landscaping. Since the houses must meet warranty standards, professional contractors do most of the actual construction.
The idea is to get low-income working families out of the expensive rental market and into home ownership
“Everyone talks about affordable housing,” Smith said. “This is affordable home ownership. It’s assisting families to have some generational wealth, building equity because they own the home. Studies show kids do better in school. If it’s a two-parent family, a lot of times one of those parents goes back to school. Basic health of entire family improves.”
He gave the example of a single mother making $35,000 or $36,000 a year and paying $1,600 to rent a two-bedroom apartment. That eats up 60 per cent of her income.
Habitat provides interest free mortgages that are pegged at 30 per cent of a family’s income. In this example, the mortgage payment would be $800 per month, more if her income goes up.
This, in a small way, frees up more rental housing units for others in an extremely tight Okanagan rental market.
For the first decade or more, Habitat in the Okanagan was strictly volunteer organization.
It opened its first ReStore outlet in West Kelowna in 2013 to sell used building and household supplies. More stores were opened in Kelowna (2015) and Penticton (earlier this year).
Habitat now has 33 people on staff, mostly managing the stores and the volunteers working there. But there is also funding for administrative staff to manage building programs.
Profits from the stores are used to buy land for future housing. Smith said they are currently looking for land in three Okanagan communities but would not say where.
The fundraising effort will be launched in order to pay construction costs and much of those costs will be covered by 'in kind' donations from contractors.
Smith gave the example of a plumbing job that may have a $10,000 value, half of which is labour. The plumber will be paid the full $10,000 then donate back the $5,000 labour cost.
There is no shortage of contractors willing to participate with Harmony Homes being the lead contractor on this project.
“The building trades have been doing very well here in the Okanagan for a number of years so this is just a way of giving back to the community,” Smith said, pointing out that half of the contractors working on these projects don’t even ask for publicity.
Two years ago, there was an eight- to 10-week delay because contractors were so busy. Now, with more contractors in the market, Smith doesn’t anticipate such a delay.
Since Habitat is fully self-financed, Smith noted, every dollar donated for a housing project goes into that project. While some funding comes from government agencies, community donations are vital.
Some applicants have already been accepted for the Lake Country units but the application process is ongoing.
People can apply or donate through the Habitat website here.
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