Monday, October 02, 2006

Lot Buying Troubles

Habitat permits denied Charity abandons plans to build in city

WAVELAND - City leaders denied several special permits Monday, prompting the world's largest charity homebuilder to abandon plans to construct new houses for more than 70 local families.
The Board of Aldermen supported a recommendation from city planners to deny special permits that would have allowed Habitat for Humanity to build nearly 20 new homes on lots that are smaller than the city's code requires.
Habitat, which is building thousands of houses along the Gulf Coast, was planning to build at least 70 new homes in Waveland, where more than 200 families remain on a waiting list.
Instead, Habitat will finish up work on "two or three" homes for families who already own property large enough to meet the city's standards. After that, the group will look elsewhere.
"We'll find places to build, but it won't be in Waveland," said Wendy McDonald, who runs the Hancock County chapter of Habitat. "We will focus the bulk of our energy on communities that are more receptive to smaller-sized lots."
McDonald has said large lots are more expensive, which drives the mortgage payments out of reach for most Habitat homeowners.
In addition, she said many who qualify for Habitat homes are senior citizens and single moms who would have trouble caring for a large lot.
"I'm not so sure any affordable housing builder can afford to build on larger lots; the math just doesn't work," McDonald said. "There's no consideration for affordable housing in Waveland and that's where the housing shortage is the most severe."
The 20 lots that were denied are in the predominantly black neighborhood of Middletown, but Alderman Brian Schmitt said most of the resistance came from residents living in different parts of the city.
"The opposition wasn't just from Middletown, it was from everywhere," Schmitt said. "People don't want smaller lots and that's what the ordinance is there for."
Schmitt, who represents parts of Middletown, said he wrestled with the decision for weeks, and casting a vote that could prevent construction of dozens of homes can make it tough to sleep at night.
"Having to make that decision killed me," he said. "I went home and cried like a baby."
Since March, aldermen have approved several recommendations from city planners allowing special permits similar to the requests they denied from Habitat.
One property owner was allowed to divide his property into eight lots, each seven feet smaller than the city's code requires, and another homeowner was allowed to divide one lot into two, one of which did not meet the city's square-footage requirement.
However, Schmitt said, none of those requests caused nearly the kind of fuss that surrounded Habitat's plan.
He said such large-scale development on small lots could jeopardize property values for existing homeowners, and homes built close together could create dangerous fire hazards.

Emailed to me - Originally from the Sun Herald


WAVELAND - Mayor Tommy Longo is urging city leaders to work with the world's largest charity homebuilder to find a solution to the town's housing crisis.
"There's a desperate need for housing in this town," Longo said. "All of us need to do whatever we can to get our people back in houses and bring them back home."
The Hancock chapter of Habitat for Humanity hopes to build about 70 new homes in Waveland as part of a plan launched last year to build "thousands and thousands" of homes along the storm-pelted Gulf Coast, from Texas to Alabama.
Although they have approved special permits for 10 new home sites, the Waveland Planning Commission has twice denied Habitat projects in recent weeks.
Habitat is looking to build homes on lots smaller than what the city code allows, which requires the group to get a special permit before building.
Wendy McDonald, who runs the Habitat office in Hancock, said the group has little choice but to build on smaller properties.
"Land costs here is what's driving our push for smaller lots," she said. "Without smaller lots its almost impossible for us to build a house that's affordable."
McDonald said the average cost of a Habitat home on the Coast is about $25,000 more than the same house in Jackson, because of soaring land values. In addition, she said many who qualify for a Habitat home are older residents and single moms who would find it hard to care for a large lot.
"The planning commission is not going to approve undersized housing in an existing subdivision, not in Waveland, Bay St. Louis or any other place," Longo said. "But we do need to work together with them to make sure that their plans fit the look of the neighborhoods they are going into, and if not, then we need to find someplace in the city that does fit."
Last week, Habitat asked the commission to approve a special permit that would allow the group to build six houses near Herlihy Street on lots that do not meet the city's 75-foot-wide requirement. Four of the lots are 70 feet wide and two are 62 feet wide.
The commission approved four of the six, but because one seller owns all of the lots, it would hardly be lucrative for Habitat to purchase six and only build on four.
It took just two Middle Town residents voicing opposition to sway the commission's vote. One lady said the Habitat homes would attract drugs and traffic to the neighborhood.
"We don't need no more houses over here," she told the Sun Herald. "If people want to build their own houses let them, but Habitat wants to build all these houses."
Opponents often appear before an elected board to voice their laments about an issue that's being decided on and sometimes the vocal group prevails.
But this week in Waveland, there were just two voices of opposition. Longo agreed that in recent months it seems a few voices of opposition have been loud enough to influence crucial decisions over the "silent majority."
He said it's happening on many governing boards throughout the county and he urged elected leaders to stand up and do what's best for the people they serve.
"It's been like that since the storm, on every single issue," he said. "One person, or two people, will be a very vocal minority and sway a decision on a project that the silent majority is in favor of, and a lot of the time, that project would've benefited most of the people in the city."
Longo said City Hall has received dozens of phone calls from Middle Town residents supporting the Habitat projects, since last week's refusal.
Besides the phone number to City Hall and photos of themselves, contact information for the Board of Aldermen is not on the city's Web site and finding a still-working home number in a post-Katrina telephone book has been hit and miss. The planning commissioners are not listed on the city's Web site.
"Even if there's not an opposite opinion at a meeting or no one has called (the commission) to speak up, the board still should vote on what they feel is best for the people in their city," McDonald said. "And, if denying those houses is what the community really wanted, then that's fine."
Habitat plans to appeal the commission's decision Tuesday to the Board of Aldermen and the group has two other projects to propose, but after that, McDonald said, the group will be out of potential home sites.
"It's seems that both sides need to be a bit more flexible and understanding of the need," Longo said. "There is a huge need for housing in this city and we need to do whatever it takes to get people back home."


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