While more low-key, Habitat fills need, too

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 8, 2008

By Susan Shinn
In his blue oxford shirt, striped tie and khaki pants, Coleman Emerson doesn’t look a thing like Ty Pennington.
But just like ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition,” Rowan County’s Habitat for Humanity helps families who need homes.
While there may be a few similarities between the two groups ó Emerson is Habitat’s executive director ó there are many differences as well.
“We’re about simple, decent housing,” Emerson says.
While Habitat has sponsored some “blitz builds,” they’ve been decidedly more low-key than the one-week build just completed in Charlotte ó a 5,100-square-foot home for Curtis and Alisha King and their three children.
The local Habitat houses average 1,200 square feet in Rowan County, and are typically built over the course of several weeks.
Emerson admits that he’s unacquainted with commercial television.
Yet both Habitat and Extreme Makeover bring communities together during builds.
“We’re a Christian ministry,” Emerson says of Habitat. “We’re about providing mission opportunities for people in our community.”
After all, Emerson reasons, not everyone can travel overseas for mission work.
“But most everyone can spare a Saturday to go out and help a neighbor in need.”
Home ownership, Emerson says, is about empowerment.
“People in our society get stuff,” he says. “What people don’t have is a capital asset that appreciates over time. Stuff depreciates.”
Habitat homeowners are able to buy their homes at cost, and pay them back over 20 years at 0 percent interest.
“They have a benevolent, caring lender,” he says, “but it is a real-world thing.”
Only one Habitat house has ever been foreclosed on in Rowan County.
“If people can have a job and are responsible, there is no problem,” Emerson says of home ownership. “Habitat is all about selecting the right family. We spend a lot of time trying to select the right people.”
The three basic criteria for applicants are the financial capability to repay the loan, a need for housing that can’t be obtained by a conventional loan and the willingness to partner with Habitat ó to provide “sweat equity.”
Payments Habitat homeowners make are used to build other houses.
“It is an honor to make the payment to help someone else,” he says. “It’s not a giveaway. We will not allow someone to disrespect the process.”
Emerson pauses. He doesn’t mean to sound hard, he says. “We have to honor the benevolence and volunteerism of the community.”
That volunteerism will swing into motion on Aug. 16, with a groundbreaking for a house built by Square D Corporation.
Then in mid-September, a house is tenatively scheduled to be built by First Presbyterian Church in memory of Mike McDuffie, who was a huge Habitat supporter.
The Habitat experience, Emerson says, is meaningful to volunteers.
“It is part of the quality of life here,” he says. “It has moments of revelation and meaning.”
Well, maybe there’s a little bit of Ty Pennington in Coleman Emerson after all.