Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 23, 2021

Habitat nailed by perfect storm

Lumber costs, labor issues, fewer donations taking toll

On a Saturday morning in Alton Park, volunteers with Habitat for Humanity race to install the trusses on a home before the heavy clouds looming above them unleash their payloads.

On the ground, a woman loops a cable attached to the business end of a large crane through the peak of a truss. The operator of the crane then lifts and swings the assembly to volunteers perched several feet above the home’s foundation on two-by-fours. This part of the crew then grabs the truss and secures it to the house.

To keep things moving, crew leaders shout instructions over the roar of the crane and the pistol shots of nail guns, even as they cast a wary eye skyward.

Their hurried efforts to complete this critical step in the construction of the home offers a snapshot of what Habitat has been experiencing locally and nationally since the advent of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 created a perfect storm of circumstances that’s making it difficult for us to accomplish our mission,” laments Jens Christensen, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga.

Habitat’s mission involves building sturdy and energy efficient houses for people who can pay an affordable mortgage but need help becoming homeowners. This assistance comes in the form of financial aid as well as education.

Tanieshia Looney, the 34-year-old mother of two who will own the Alton Park home Habitat is building on this gray Saturday, has completed an exhaustive 250 hours of course work. From showing her how to maintain the plumbing in her future home to teaching her how to create a budget, Habitat has covered every aspect of owning a home.

“I’ve learned things I never thought I’d have to know,” Looney laughs as she watches the crane lower another truss into place. “I’m also ready to handle the responsibility.”

Christensen says homeownership is the most elegant solution for people who are suffering from a lack of adequate housing.

“It allows a family to build equity, and it allows parents to pass on that wealth to the next generation. You have to pay for housing, so why not benefit from it as you do?”

Plus, Christensen says, children who grow up in a stable home not only perform better in school but also escape generational poverty and have fewer encounters with the criminal justice system.

“Home ownership is a game changer, especially for someone growing up in poverty.”

Christensen will get no argument from Looney, who’s only ever rented places to live and is looking forward to her daughter and son sleeping under the roof that’s currently under construction. If the pandemic has taught her anything, she says, it’s the value of home.

Unfortunately, this same virulent disease is also making it difficult for Habitat to build Looney’s home.

A June 25 Associated Press article titled “Habitat for Humanity struggles with high construction costs” states the organization is reeling from a series of hard blows to the chin that began in early 2020.

First, Habitat scaled back its use of volunteers to avoid spreading the virus at build sites, which forced the organization to hire contractors to finish projects. This hit the organization below the belt, Christensen says.

“Under normal circumstances, our crew leaders are typically retired folks who spend a few days a week giving back. That really cuts down the cost of building a home.”

The added expense came as Habitat shuttered its ReStores, home improvement centers that sell used furniture, appliances and building materials, stretching already strained budgets even more. Christensen says Chattanooga ReStores on East Main Street and Apison Pike contribute about 20% of the local Habitat’s $2.4 million budget or around $480,000 yearly.

A drop in donations followed, adding to Habitat’s injury. Locally, philanthropic giving fell about 30%, Christensen says.

“Many people were struggling due to wage cuts or being out of work and were unable to donate at their previous level,” Christensen reports. “So, we had considerably less funding.”

Despite the muscle behind these blows, they lacked the brute force of what AP suggests had the potential to be the knockout punch – the rise in construction costs.

Lumber prices alone skyrocketed more than 300% between April 2020 and May 2021, according to the National Association of Home Builders, causing the average price of a new single-family home to increase by nearly $36,000.

During that same span of time, the Chattanooga Habitat saw its price tag for building a house spike from $90,000 to $130,000, Christensen says.

Lumber was not the only culprit, he adds. About one month ago, for example, the city ran out of subfloor, forcing Habitat to pay more for a different material.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” Christensen explains. “Manufacturing facilities and lumber mills shut down, which limited the supply. At the same time, people were stuck at home and feeling like their house was too small, so they started doing home improvements or building new homes, and demand shot up.”

As manufacturing facilities play catch-up, kinks are appearing in the supply chain. For example, Christensen claims it’s not unusual for the local Habitat to wait up to 24 weeks for the windows it orders for a new home to arrive.

These delays are occurring even as contractors are cramming requests for work into already crowded calendars. Here again, Habitat is feeling the pinch, with Christensen saying contractors have taken as long as 10 weeks to pour the concrete for one of its houses.

Taken together, these delays have the potential to balloon the build time for one of Habitat’s houses from 12 weeks to 24, depending on how well the organization plans its purchases, Christensen adds.

“It’s a moving target. Because building supplies are a commodity, we don’t buy a great deal in advance. Prices fluctuate, so we try to buy materials when we can get the best deal.”

Despite the challenges the Chattanooga Habitat has faced since the start of the pandemic, the organization is on target to build four houses in 2021. Since launching its services locally in 1986, Habitat has built nearly 290 houses, which averages out to nearly eight per year.

Habitat has also completed more than 80 home repairs and aging-in-place projects.

Christensen says he believes the building supplies market will return to normal “at some point” and allow Habitat to build more homes, but says no one can predict when that will happen.

Habitat is planning for the future, however, and is considering ways to not only make better use of its dollars but also tackle another obstacle: the diminishing number of available lots in Chattanooga.

“We’re looking into building multiunits, which would be a new endeavor for Habitat. This would allow us to build more housing for less cost and cope with the land struggle,” Christensen notes.

Christensen doubts multiunits will be an “end-all solution,” however, as he says there are communities in which they will not be acceptable.

“If a community is made up of single-family units, they might not fit with the neighborhood, and the neighborhood might not be open to them.”

Regardless of what tomorrow holds, Christensen says, Habitat will have a presence in Chattanooga.

“We don’t want to talk about cutting services. We want to be growing because the need for affordable housing continues to grow.”

Christensen says his optimism is rooted in the impact Habitat has had over the years in the lives of its homeowners.

“There’s a lot of hope in what we do,” he says. “There’s also a lot of hope in what comes after someone acquires a home. The most exciting stories come five or 10 years later when we hear what life was like for the kids before and what it’s like now.

“Maybe they’re going to college, and for the first time in that family’s history, someone has a career path and is looking at being able to give back to their community.”

Looney, who works full-time at HomeServe, says this is the story she hopes her children tell someday.

“This has been an amazing journey. And I know this home is going to make a difference in their lives.”