Natural Habitat 

Habitat for Humanity to build "green" neighborhood in Oakhaven.

Each year, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis builds about 13 houses, all constructed with the help of volunteer labor. Next year, however, they hope to build the first phase on an entire neighborhood.

Last spring, Habitat for Humanity broke ground on its largest project ever, a 38-home "green" neighborhood in Oakhaven called Trinity Park. The project should be fully completed in about two years.

"This is our first planned community," says Habitat executive director Dwayne Spencer. "We have built homes in the same general vicinity of each other before, but we've never done a development that's an entire Habitat for Humanity community."

Most Habitat homes are built as infills in existing residential areas. Though Habitat didn't initially plan to build a neighborhood and had to install infrastructure such as streets and gutters for the first time, Spencer says Trinity Park is a good thing for the group.

The project came about after a family donated 11 acres in Oakhaven to Habitat about eight years ago. At the time, Habitat didn't have funding — or the support from the surrounding neighborhood — to develop the land.

"Because of the general stigma with Habitat families, they were not interested in us coming in and doing any sort of work," Spencer says. "Nimbyism exists."

Habitat put the project on hold for several years while they worked with architects and engineers to develop a viable plan. When they came before the Memphis City Council for approval almost two years ago, there was still negative feedback from the community, but it was much less. The two groups reached a compromise, and Habitat said it would build 38 homes instead of the 48 originally planned.

Other Habitat groups have done similar large-scale projects in Nashville, Dallas, and San Antonio.

"The argument goes back and forth between the affiliates across the country," Spencer says. "Are we doing the best thing by putting all Habitat families together? Or should we be looking for mixed-income developments?"

When Habitat homes are built on existing streets, most of the surrounding homes are older. Spencer says this can lead to residents being singled out by other neighbors. When they build a cluster of Habitat homes, they create an instant community not experienced by residents who live in established neighborhoods.

"Our impact on these families is simply less effective. It's a much smaller impact," Spencer says. "We've noticed that when we put six families on the street next to each other, there's a lean-on-me sort of mentality."

In addition to the 38 houses, Trinity Park will include a community resource center where neighbors can meet.

Working on one subdivision is also a more efficient use of volunteer and staff resources. When the group builds five houses simultaneously on five different streets, they need five tents for volunteer registration and lunch, five places to store tools, and five people to oversee construction.

"There are many benefits to building on one street," Spencer says.

Generally, Habitat's land specialist searches county tax lien lists to find property the group can redevelop. To try and create a cluster, they'll also contact nearby property owners — many of them absentee in aging neighborhoods — and see if they can convince them to sell.

"Trinity Park was an opportunity to create something unique. All the units would belong to us," Spencer says.

Trinity Park is also unique in that it will be a "green" neighborhood. The local Habitat organization has worked with MLGW's EcoBUILD program for several years. In addition, the national Habitat office began a green pilot program several years ago with 30 of its affiliates, including Memphis, and the Home Depot Foundation. More efficient appliances and building standards should translate into lower utility bills.

"Our homeowners are living on very minimal budgets. The only thing we have control over as Habitat for Humanity is that we don't charge them interest — that's how we keep their mortgages to a minimum," Spencer says. "This is one additional way to help their pocketbooks."

The organization now has made a commitment to green all its homes. But more energy-efficient houses and building an entire neighborhood aren't the only differences the local Habitat affiliate has seen in recent years. About a year ago, they expanded their construction staff from two people to five and changed the way they start projects.

"We used to start eight houses on September 15th. We'd work for seven to eight weeks and have one big dedication," Spencer says. "Now we've started to stagger our build dates."

In response to sponsor feedback, they've also started to build on weekdays instead of only on Fridays and Saturdays.

"We have plans to continue to build homes until the issue of proper housing is eradicated," Spencer says. "Will that ever happen? No, probably not."

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