Dispelling the Myths about Habitat for Humanity

I finally feel free to write about my unfortunate experiences with one of the most hypocritical and rigid “charitable” organizations with which I have ever had the mixed blessing of doing business. I am quite sure that there are people out there whose lives have been changed by Habitat for Humanity for the better. I also know there are volunteers out there with their hearts in the right place. And I certainly believe that Jimmy Carter, the founder, has his heart in the right place when he created Habitat. But like most patriarchal structures today, even charitable ones are not learning to roll with extraordinary economical changes, creating hardships for those they claim to help instead of staying aligned with their proclaimed mission. So, this is the truth of my experience.

In 2006, when everyone still believed that a home was the best investment one could make, I accidentally looked into the possibility of home ownership. I say accidentally because I didn’t think I would ever qualify. I went to a housing fair where I met a Habitat for Humanity representative. I was under the assumption that Habitat was for people with no income. She explained to me that Habitat homeowners actually have to meet minimum income guidelines. I wasn’t “too rich” for a Habitat home. With my credit rating, I would likely qualify.

So began the long process of applying for a home followed by hours of sweat equity (even with a bout with Mono and later, Shingles), and finally, closing on my home.

The way their lawyer treated me at the signing was a symbol of things to come. I was hearing a lot of information for the first time at the that meeting and doing my best to take it all in. He was abrupt and treated me as if I had no right to question anything since I was “being given a house”. Those were actually his words. I was ready to walk out then and there…wanted to, in fact. But I didn’t think I could. And, legally, I probably couldn’t. But what did I know? The whole day left a bad taste in my mouth.

I certainly didn’t know then that I could have had the home appraised and inspected before buying it. I trusted blindly and completely. Nor did I have the sense to ask questions about my other rights. This was Habitat after all. Surely, they had my best interests at heart and would inform me of anything truly important. And while I was given an interest-free loan (sort of), I still paid way too much for the house blind as I was, as we all were, to the overinflated market and impending real estate collapse of 2008.

Before I go much further, let me explain how Habitat works for those who are either misinformed or simply unaware, as is often the case. It certainly was for me. Habitat does not “give” houses away. Nor does it really offer interest-free houses. The interest is compiled into a 2nd mortgage, one that is forgiven once the house is paid off, but one that becomes due if the house is ever sold before that. Habitat claims they don’t sell their homes for a profit. But really, that is only true if the owner of the house stays in it for the full 30 years of the mortgage. How many people do you know who stay in a house for 30 years…in this economy? In this day and age? And as in my case, a single woman at that?

What I didn’t know is that by signing an agreement with Habitat, I was signing away my freedom. Essentially, I became a renter with all the responsibilities of home ownership and very few of the benefits.

I couldn’t change my yard or exterior without “permission,” and often by the time I got it, I no longer had the money or promised help to follow through. I had to be in the somewhat impotent homeowner’s association (though they were really quite good at sending out notices of “rules and regulations” being ignored). I couldn’t travel for extended periods without “permission.” I wasn’t supposed to rent a room, though I once did to make ends meet. And naturally, I had to pay to fix everything that went wrong, even if it was the result of inferior construction or workmanship, once the warranty ran out. I had to keep up with house payments through 2 layoffs and eventual unemployment. And I did! I lived up to each of my responsibilities.

I should mention in all fairness that my house was beautiful. It was new (obviously), clean, and very, very sweet. It was safe and nurturing, and though it had its faults and often challenged me, it was a huge gift for which I was (and will always be) grateful for.

Now, at the time of buying the house, I had no idea what life would bring 7 years later. In 2013, my life changed quite a bit and in some unexpected ways. It started with the publication of my book and resultant need to travel. That’s when I first became aware of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to be out of the house for more than two weeks out of every month without being “in default”. To be fair, Habitat was willing to work with me on that. As long as I arranged to have the house looked after, they would overlook my extended absence. But I couldn’t just “do it.” I had to grovel. They had to know about my personal life when really, they had no business in it.

On top of that, courses that I was supposed to teach at the college where I worked didn’t fill. Another program there in which I worked was undergoing lots of changes, and I knew my time there was also limited. I needed to find a land more opportune than the one in which I was living. Besides all of this, later in the year, I met and married my husband, who unfortunately for the both of us, lived overseas. I needed to sell!

At least I wasn’t exactly underwater anymore, as so many people have been, but I wouldn’t be making anything after 7 years either. I put my house on the market in October and began making my plans to move to France as soon as possible. Winter came and went. Spring brought a few lookers, but only one offer that didn’t even meet what I needed to pay off the loan. I was getting worried. I didn’t want to foreclose. I had an absolutely perfect…yes,perfect…credit score. I spoke with Habitat about my options. Could I rent the house? No. Could I offer an assumed mortgage? No. Could I find an investor and pay off the first mortgage with the 2nd forgiven? Ha! No! And months later, would they please allow me a forbearance while I resettled? No. Reduced mortgage temporarily while I got situated overseas? No. Short sale? No. Deed in lieu? After all, it’s not like I was upsidedown, and they’d lose money. In fact, they’d be making a pretty nice profit by getting back the “forgiven” 2nd mortgage, wouldn’t they?

NO.NO. NO.

This was the treatment I got from a so-called humanitarian organization that is supposed to care about and help people. I’m just going to say it: really, they are just another bloated corporation with inflexible self-protective rules and inflexible structures that merely serve their own preservation. Okay, to be fair, they don’t want to give their houses to people who are just out to flip them and make a profit. They want to protect their interests too. The problem is, such protections blanket everyone and everything into impossible situations! They have a built-in rigidity to which they can cling regardless of all logic and reasoning.

Now, 7 years after buying my house, the reality of the terms of my deed of trust became fully known to me. If I left, I’d be in default, even if I kept up with my payments. My life would have to wait. I was bought and sold…to a house. Basically, if my house didn’t sell, I was screwed.

But I’m thankfully not the type to keep my life on ice forever. In late April, I finally left for France, come what may. I received my certified letter from the bank two weeks later that they intended to foreclose on me in 120 days…and probably only because of the new laws passed in 2014 that said they had to wait that long. Mind you, I’m totally up to date with all my payments. In fact, I’d been paying ritualistically early every month for 6+ years. I’ve been doing this despite being unemployed twice. So bear in mind, this foreclosure would be solely based on my not living in the house anymore.

So now, I’d not only been a mere glorified renter, losing all equity, but I was also about to have my credit destroyed…for having paid my mortgage (aka: rent) on time for the past 7 years…all because I needed to move for a better opportunity and the love of my life.

I don’t really care that I’ve lost all my equity in the house. It bites, but that’s life. As I see it, I had a pretty affordable ‘rent’ for 6+ years. But I do care about my credit. These so-called charitable Christians couldn’t care less if they destroyed one of their homeowner’s credit. In fact, maybe they want to. When I was doing my sweat equity, I was often witness to attitudes towards partner families that surprised me. For example, one family chose redo their landscape, and one of the construction foreman said sarcastically, “I guess we didn’t do it right,” as if it was some kind of insult and lack of appreciation on the part of the homeowner. I’ve heard of other Habitat horror stories as well. [see http://www.scam.com/showthread.php?t=46670 and http://www.wtsp.com/story/news/local/florida/2014/03/12/2040730/ and http://forum.freeadvice.com/other-real-estate-law-questions-11/i-just-want-give-my-habitat-humanity-house-back-its-very-long-but-please-help-574314.html and http://www.ripoffreport.com/r/Habitat-for-Humanity/Payson-Arizona-85541/Habitat-for-Humanity-Payson-Area-Habitat-For-Humanity-The-Problems-Ive-Encountered-Buyi-677104] Time and time again, the attitude is that Habitat is “good” and “just” and that the homeowner is “lazy” and “unappreciative.” Years ago, I would have held that same attitude. Not anymore!

I myself was never the groveling and overly appreciative, agreeable little lamb they wanted me to be. When they mailed us letters requesting our true thought and feelings over the Habitat process and how it changed our lives, I told them my truth. I said it left a lot to be desired, that I never felt “in control” or informed. I felt that they were all too happy to have me be completely ignorant of the process and my rights in it. The set-up unwittingly put me in the position of not being able to ask for anything or question anything. And when I did, I was made to feel that I was an ungrateful whiner complaining over nothing. After all, as their lawyer had said, they were “giving me a house.” In many of the forum links above, this arrogant attitude is echoed by others who have been completely blinded to the reality. I’m not saying Habitat is evil by any means. But it is no angel either. And it is this misconception, that they can do no wrong, that can and must be corrected. They need to learn to meet people half-way in extraordinary circumstances (such as the housing collapse) and in unforeseeable life changes.

Fortunately, everything worked out and my house sold within one month of the looming deadline saving me from foreclosure. Fortunately for the new owners, they won’t have to deal with Habitat’s silly rules. I share this story now not to bash Habitat (I know they have their side of the story), but because maybe, just maybe someone inside will start to question how they do things and start making some changes. As for me, I feel like my soul and freedom have been unapologetically reclaimed. Woot!

 

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