A Day of Giving Back

At the recent 10th Annual Strategies for Success in Construction Lending Seminar in New Orleans, hosted by Granite Loan Management, I had the unique opportunity to take part in building a home with Habitat for Humanity near Musicians' Village.

On the early morning of Dec. 2, I gathered with around 15 volunteers from Granite and other professionals from the construction lending and mortgage industry to begin our day of work. A bus picked us up from our hotel near the French Quarter to take us to the devastated area. Our tour guide, an extremely warm and friendly real estate agent named Jo Ann Tournillon, who owned a home in Lakeview when Katrina hit, shared stories with us along our route to the build site. Many of the homes were four feet off the ground and covered in six feet of water.

Three years later, this historic city is still struggling to come back. Many of the elderly in Lakeview stayed behind and lost their lives. Some of those who survived have decided not to rebuild. But renewed spirit and renovation is happening. She said a lot of young people are moving back to the lower Ninth Ward, which was completely covered by water during Hurricane Katrina. These families are making a fresh start.

When we pulled up to our designated street, I smiled at the sight of all of the pastel homes in light lavender, pale orange, and soft blue. Happy colors, they add a much-needed spark to the community.

As a team, we worked from morning until lunch, painting a Habitat home, so the floor could be put in the next day. Some of us worked on the doors outside, while the remainder of our crew joined together to complete two full coats by the end of the afternoon on the three-bedroom home. It might sound simple, but that is a big goal to complete in one day. What a rewarding experience!

Habitat for Humanity is building homes in all of the parishes. It has 254 homes under construction right now and is trying to complete 500. Seventy-six of the homes are in the Upper Ninth Ward. Twenty-two of those 76 are in Musician's Village, which is a partnership with Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. The idea is to build seven to eight houses a year for 10 years and have a high concentration of musicians in one area. Not just musicians would live in these houses though, but it would encourage everyone to work together and inspire one another. In addition to the 76 houses, they are building a community center that will also act as a performance venue, recording studio for local musicians but also for kids, ran by the Marsalis foundation. It will be good for the area, for the Ninth Ward, and families coming from all over New Orleans. A park will also be located to help benefit the neighborhood.

I've heard about the Habitat program for years and known people who helped, but I have never been a part of the process. It was very interesting to hear how it works. Habitat for Humanity buys a piece of property and builds a house on it. They sell the house to the homeowner for the price it cost to build the house, whether that be the wood that goes in the walls, the shingles on the roof, or paying the contractor to put in the foundation. There are no overhead costs. The home is sold through a 30-year no interest mortgage. Borrowers are only paying principal of the mortgage. Flood insurance and annual termite protection is included. Habitat provides these families with an asset - not just a piece of property with a house on it. On average, the homes are valued between $130,000 to $160,000. Mortgages are roughly between $70,000 and $80,000.

The last piece of the puzzle is sweat equity. In lieu of a downpayment, borrowers put in 350 hours to help build other houses. They become familiar with swinging a hammer and find out how to tackle home projects in the future, like adding to the home and make sure projects are done right. They find out what it takes to put their house together: the blood, the sweat, the tears. And they become familiar with volunteers. People come from all over the world to help say that New Orleans matters to them and that this house matters to them.