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CKNA may help start Habitat here

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One of Lewisburg's biggest employers is helping to organize a Habitat for Humanity affiliate here with the executive director of Lewisburg's public housing authority.

CKNA's Lewisburg plant manager, Vitto Raffo, last week explained his company's interest to the Three Star Housing Committee of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board chaired by Ronald Robinson, the housing authority's executive.

"My company," Raffo said, "in Shelbyville, started supporting Habitat this year... What I learned about it, excited me."

Habitat obtains land and builds modest homes for buyers screened by the Christian program. Jimmy Carter famously advocates Habitat, founded in 1976 by Millard Fuller, a self-made millionaire from Alabama. Personal crisis led Fuller to Americus, Ga., and Koinonia Farm, founded by Clarance Jordan. They developed the basis for what's now Habitat for Humanity International.

After such background was shared Dec. 3 with the Three Star Committee, Robinson agreed to lead a Habitat affiliation committee, and he selected Raffo as a key member of the panel working toward creating an affiliate.

It's all because Calsonic Kansei North America leaders in Shelbyville decided the company would match employee donations to Habitat. They learned the Christian group had no affiliate in Marshall County and, at first, concluded they'd participate only through the Bedford Builds group in Shelbyville. Then, Raffo stood up for this community and company agreed to help here, too.

"That is a true blessing for Marshall County," said Colleen Dudley, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Tennessee who was invited to the Three Star Housing Committee meeting by JECDB Executive Director Mike Wiles, a 14-year veteran of CKNA before accepting his government job.

Wiles, County Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill and Linda Mullinix, another member of the Three Star Housing Committee, were also appointed by Robinson to the Habitat affiliation committee.

"We're going to explore the opportunities in trying to establish a base here" for an affiliate, Mullinix said, unable to state another meeting time because of the holidays, "but it's definitely something we're looking into."

These kinds of steps are not unusual before an affiliate is established.

"Habitat is a grass-roots organization and this is exactly how this is started," Dudley said.

Habitat for Humanity of Tennessee supports affiliates of Habitat International. For example, it received a $500,000 grant last February from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to build 20 homes in Tennessee. THDA's Housing Trust Fund targets households with income that's less than half the average.

Frequently, that's the people Habitat helps, according to Beth McAllister Smith, executive director for Habitat for Humanity in Rutherford County. In Murfreesboro "a bunch of retirees who called themselves the grumpy old men" organized an affiliate there where some of THDA's grant was spent to help build a home in Murfreesboro. Habitat has built 84 homes there.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that the houses are given away," Smith told the Three Star Housing Committee.

Potential home-buyers apply to participate in the Habitat program. It includes credit and household budget counseling. They're also expected to help build other Habitat homes before construction of their home is planned. That donated work, measured in hours, is called sweat equity.

"The resident has pride in it because they helped build it and they have something to pass along to their children," Smith explained.

"It's simple. It's decent and it's affordable," she said of what's usually a three-bedroom, two-bath home that comes with a mortgage and monthly payments. "The people who aren't going to be good homeowners fall off (a selection list) before they get to that point" of having a mortgage to pay off.

Habitat affiliates "purchase the lots" for the homes to be built and they "do a lot of in-fill," she said about a development tactic of using vacant lots throughout a community.

Linda Mullinix, the county mayor's administrative assistant and a member of several government panels, asked, "What are the steps to form a local affiliate?"

Smith and Dudley delivered information packages and explained the public is notified when an affiliate is ready to receive applications from people who want to help build a home they'd buy.

"Habitat International will give you someone to work with," Smith said. "It will take 12-15 months to get that;" a local affiliate organized and ready to start accepting applications for home construction.

That preparation includes finding land, families and funding, she said, adding that each affiliate develops its own guidelines on how to measure sweat equity.

Raffo spoke up again.

"The company will have a fund raiser," the plant manager said. "Not only will they contribute financially. They will participate."

Other participants have included various government agencies and other businesses and their organizations.

"Cosmo Crusaders" is an organization affiliated with CosmoLab, the cosmetics business in Lewisburg, according to Greg Lowe, a Lewisburg official attending the meeting. He indicated that group could be interested in participating.

If an affiliate is chartered as a tax-free organization, then property taxes aren't paid until the owner is making mortgage payments. Other government fees might be waived during construction and demolition might be provided by a municipal agency.

Kantus Corp., another name for CKNA, plans to help build a Habitat house in Bedford County starting in March and it's to be finished in May, Raffo said.

Construction of a Habitat house in Marshall County might be started in 2010, the plant manager told the committee formed as a part of the county-wide Joint Economic and Community Development Board.

JECDBs are required under state law in all counties to deal with various issues raised by the law, including the Three Star Program administered by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

The JECDB's Three Star Housing Committee unanimously decided to have Robinson proceed toward chartering a Marshall County affiliate with Habitat for Humanity International.