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Lending a helping hand.

Lending a Helping Hand

This summer, North Carolina lenders pulled together to help one special family build their dream - from the ground up.

Stroll through the Belmont neighborhood on Charlotte's north side on most days and chances are, you won't meet any mortgage bankers. Tiny cottages line the narrow streets. Metal mesh shields the windows of a corner convenience store. "Time to Party" is airbrushed on the side of another local hangout. Belmont is a neighborhood police officers know all too well. This year alone, four murders were committed there.

But this summer, the city's mortgage bankers, working through Habitat for Humanity, took a stab at changing life in Belmont - at least for one family. Wielding hammers, saws and two-by-fours, members of the Charlotte Mortgage Bankers Association (CMBA) ventured out in the steamy heat of June, July and August to build Vanessa Willis a home.

Willis, a shy young woman and assistant director at a Charlotte day-care center, had been living with her two daughters in a two-bedroom apartment nearby. "The apartment was nice, but I always wanted a house," said Willis. It's something I always dreamed of having, and I have it - my own," she emphasized as she stood in the August sunshine surveying the raked dirt front yard. The home officially became hers September 10.

To make the dream reality, the city's bankers and mortgage insurance brokers first plundered their pockets to raise the $32,400 needed for construction. Next, they abandoned suits and ties for gym shorts, sneakers and t-shirts. On June 20 - the start of a three-day blitz that began the project - those who normally darken desks eight hours a day mustered the muscle to frame a three-bedroom home.

"My first nail was a little weak," confessed Beth South, who sweltered in the near-ninety-degree heat of the June kickoff day. South, division vice president of CTX Mortgage Company based in Dallas, and past president of the CMBA, accepted the challenge on behalf of the 100-member organization. With practice, her pounding improved. "This is just so much fun," she said, cheering as workers struggled to raise a wall.

One neighborhood at a time

Begun in Americus, Georgia in 1976, Habitat for Humanity is an international non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating poverty housing. The group allows low-income families, in partnership with their communities, to build and own their homes. With 612 chapters in the United States alone, Habitat also builds in 33 other countries. The organization has helped construct 10,000 houses worldwide.

Charlotte's chapter is the nation's largest, having built 116 homes since its birth in 1983. Former President Jimmy Carter's involvement in the organization and his 1987 visit to Charlotte galvanized the growth spurt here, said Susan Hancock, executive director of the city's chapter. Before then, Charlotte's contingent had erected only 14 homes. "Then it really took off," she added. This year alone, 35 Habitat homes will go up in the city.

Essential to Habitat is the concept of building in one neighborhood at a time. Since 1988, Charlotte's Habitat affiliate has been building in Belmont. Why? "Because the neighborhood needs tremendous renovation," Hancock explained. Of the 800 structures there, only 5 percent were homeownerships when Habitat first pinpointed the area. Now, Hancock pointed out, there's a Habitat house on every block. The CMBA project represents the 60th Habitat house built in Belmont. Ten more were still under construction there in late August, said Hancock. "Homeownership helps to make a community stable, and that's what we're doing."

If any neighborhood needed a lift, Belmont did. In the first six months of this year, Charlotte police reported three killings, nine rapes, 33 robberies and 236 aggravated assaults there. Including burglaries, larcenies, shoplifting and car thefts, the area tallied 472 serious and commonly reported crimes during that time. "I would say on a high, medium, low [scale]...that's high," said crime analyst John Couchell of the Charlotte Police Department.

Despite the dismal statistics, Couchell believes building Habitat homes in neighborhoods like Belmont does boost the area's image. While police have had reports of break-ins at job sites, once the homes are built, the burglaries tend to stop. "These people are taking pride in their homes," said Couchell. "[They] are not the criminal element that's out there."

And the neighborhood used to be a lot worse. Since Habitat homes have gone up, crime in Belmont has dropped 50 percent, Hancock said, citing more upbeat police numbers. "As we're providing more homeownership, the crime's going down."

George Byrd, who sat rocking on his porch just two doors down from the tan A-frame, said he believes the Habitat home will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. "We need new houses," he said simply.

Others regarded the new home with cautious curiosity. A couple in a grey sedan drove by slowly, eyed the new construction, and then moved on.

Mortgage bankers get busy

Still, it seems strange that those who make their living weeding out bad risks should help someone who wouldn't qualify on any of their loan applications get a home. Clark Gregory thought the cause was worth the effort. A year ago, Gregory, vice president of Charlotte-based Barclays-American Mortgage Corporation and a Habitat volunteer through his church, coaxed his company's charitable foundation to donate $5,000 to Habitat. "Once I got the money, I didn't know what to do with it," said Gregory, who also started a siding crew for Habitat.

Willard Gourley, Jr. had an idea. Gourley, vice chairman of BarclaysAmerican, and a longstanding advocate of nationwide affordable housing efforts, suggested tying the donation in with the 1991 Jimmy Carter Initiative of building 1,500 houses around the country. Gourley also proposed challenging the CMBA to raise the rest of the money and do the building.

Gourley, who was a member of Charlotte's initial Habitat for Humanity board, is now vice chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, which helps fund mortgage loans for poor families. He also serves as chairman of Mortgage Bankers Association of America's (MBA) Affordable Housing Committee.

Still, Gourley admitted he was initially skeptical about Habitat's viability. Purely from a business standpoint, "the lending of the money is not what we'd call the best leverage of the dollars," he explained. Habitat requires homeowners to pay back the principal, along with insurance and taxes, but no interest. The mortgage payments allow Habitat to buy more lots that are thus recycled into more homes. "The thing that really has made it successful is families getting turned on to the idea of helping," said Gourley.

Nor do Habitat home recipients get off lightly. "Folks really have a hard time understanding it's not a giveaway," said Hancock. Willis will pay back the construction loan over 15 years, initially paying approximately $210 per month. Mortgage payments go up a graduated amount in the 10th through the 15th years. Habitat beneficiaries also put in at least 100 hours of hard labor or "sweat equity" on a neighbor's project as well as working at their own site every day it is under construction. In most cases, that amounts to another 500 to 800 hours. "It's a huge time commitment, but that's why it's worked," said Hancock.

Despite his early involvement and continuing commitment, Gourley admits a busy travel schedule has prevented him from helping to build. "I haven't driven a nail," he says, chagrined. "I've just been a lot of mouth."

"If I had a hammer..."

But plenty of others have taken up tools. Take Kathy Bickett, an account executive with Triad Guaranty Insurance Corporation in Winston-Salem. Dressed in brown high-top work boots, shorts and a t-shirt, a loaded tool belt sagging off her hips, Bickett took time out from hammering in June to explain how she got stuck with the fundraising. "I told them I'd be glad to do anything. That ended up being the |anything.'" Still, said Bickett, the group reached its goal in just seven months. About half of the contributions were from individuals. Raffles and the annual Christmas party helped boost the fundraising effort, and by May 9, the bankers had reached their goal.

Both Bickett and CTX's South pointed out that Habitat offered the mortgage bankers a way to give back to the industry that supports them. Said Bickett, "A lot of times you want to help, but you don't know exactly how to get involved."

Involvement for the crews that spent their summer Saturdays in Belmont consisted of everything from picking up rocks to painting walls. And more than mortgage bankers got in on the act. The money lenders' friends and family helped out.

On a breezy Saturday morning in late August, Barbara Hollers sweated alongside Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corporation's Connie Coe. Coe, a sales service representative with Milwaukee-based MGIC and Hollers were part of the landscaping crew. But Hollers, who works for a real estate developer, got recruited by the husband of a mortgage banker who works with her. "We're mining for gold to plant monkey grass," Hollers joked as she struggled to make a dent with her shovel in the rocky terrain. While Hollers had never worked on a Habitat project before, she said, "It's fun. I enjoy doing things like this. Maybe this is just a beginning."

For others, Habitat projects have become, well, a habit. Mary Walker, a field operations representative with Raleigh-based GE Mortgage Insurance Corporation, said the Belmont house is her husband's eighth Habitat project and her daughter's third. "I think when people work on a Habitat house, it kind of gets addictive," said Walker as she brushed the finishing strokes on the baseboards of Willis's guest bathroom.

Carol Gourley, a mortgage underwriter with Buffalo-based Marine Midland Servicing Corporation, has made the Habitat project a family affair. Her 13-year-old son Tony crouched in the living room, filling holes with a glob of white putty. Meanwhile, his 10-year-old sister Erika, clad in a football jersey that hung to her knees, dabbed sky blue paint on the closet walls of the master bedroom. Gourley, who has been at the site nearly every Saturday the crews worked, said of her children, "They didn't think they'd have fun, but they're having fun."

But the youngsters soaking in the most enjoyment would have to be Willis's own children, Georgia and Lakesha. Georgia, a serious-faced, petite child with a husky voice that sounds older than its nine years, daintily plucked rocks from the front yard and gingerly placed them in a wheel-barrow. Meanwhile, round-faced Lakesha, five, clad in a stripped dress and yellow flip-flops, sat on a kitchen stool on the sidewalk to survey the goingson. She was quiet - until the subject of her room came up. "I got pink," she announced proudly.

Sure enough, even as she spoke, workers were slathering peppermint pink paint on the walls of her room. Down the hall, Georgia's room was getting a layer of lavender. "The girls picked it out too, believe it or not," said Willis of their bedroom colors. Willis has a pale blue to blend with the other pastels.

As Georgia peeked into her sister's unfinished room, one of the painters, Teri Gettings, a branch manager in Charlotte for GE Mortgage Insurance, asked how she liked it. Georgia smiled shyly and left to peer into her own room. "That makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it - to see that grin," said Gettings. Meanwhile, workers scavenged like birds in Willis's spacious backyard. They were picking out rocks and debris in preparation for the planting of grass. Willis, gazing out her back door fretted about how she'll mow such a large lawn. Moments before, as she stood in her eldest daughter's bedroom she talked of the need to buy twin beds for the girls. "Bigger house, more furniture," she lamented. Her woes sound like those of a typical homeowner. This time, you get the feeling her worries are welcome.

PHOTO : Mortgage bankers from the Charlotte, North Carolina area volunteer their time and energy to help build better housing in low-income neighborhoods.

PHOTO : Todd Houser, Sovran Mortgage, Charlotte, discusses the progress of the house-raising with owner Vanessa Willis.

PHOTO : Brant Belch, David Cunningham, Kathy Bickett, Vanessa Willis and Clark Gregory pitch in a helping hand for Habitat for Humanity.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Mortgage Bankers Association of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Charlotte Mortgage Banking Association, working through Habitat for Humanity, helps build a home for Vanessa Willis
Author:Payton, Kathy
Publication:Mortgage Banking
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:A new product formula.
Next Article:The FHA facts.

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