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People rich and land poor, Habitat seeking new lots

Published on

Cathy Dobson

It wasn’t easy buying the land for the latest Habitat for Humanity build.

“This was a wonderful find but it was on the market for a while,” says executive director Sarah Reaume.

The local non-profit had made an offer to purchase the small residential lot at 348 East St. North and it was rejected. Nothing happened for months.

Finally, a second offer was accepted and Habitat began construction of a new, three-bedroom home for a low-income family.

As a result, Bruce and Jocelyn Robinson and their two children will move into an affordable home of their own in a few months.

It’s just the latest success story for the local Habitat for Humanity. In five years, 33 new homes have been built and 10 others renovated.

Habitat owners are contributing nearly $500 million to the property tax base in Sarnia and Lambton County, said Reaume.

At the same time, those same people are no longer relying on social and socially assisted housing.

Habitat for Humanity Sarnia-Lambton is ahead of the curb, winning awards and forming creative partnerships that make giving a hand up possible over and over again.

The trouble is, the land Habitat builds on is in short supply.

Reaume and Ron RealeSmith think they may have a solution. They don’t know one another but they want the same things and they believe City Hall is listening.

RealeSmith is the founder of a website called Sarnia Urban Blight. The site highlights properties – primarily in central the city south-end Sarnia – that are often boarded up, barely habitable and dragging down the neighbourhood.

“They are almost all owned by absentee landowners who don’t care,” RealeSmith said.

That’s because some landlords watch for tax sales that occur when a homeowner default on property taxes and the city puts it up for sale.

“Slum landlords know the game,” he said. “They watch for these houses to go on the market and when they acquire them they do the bare minimum so they can rent them out.”

But if Habitat for Humanity jump on some of the good deals generated by tax sales, better homes and caring homeowners could move into the neighbourhood instead.

“I’ve seen it happen twice in my own neighbourhood when Habitat built two houses on Euphemia,” RealeSmith said.  “We’re seeing the difference.

“We want more Habitat for Humanity neighbours. I love the idea that Habitat could acquire more property.”

Habitat ownership improves lives and improves neighbourhoods, agrees Reaume.

“Instead of someone doing minor repairs for a rental property no one wants to see, we’d love the opportunity to build a new house,” she said.

Not only does the Habitat home get maintained, it generally encourages others in the neighbourhood to paint their porch or mow their lawn.

She recently appealed to City Hall for support of a resolution to formally include Habitat for Humanity Sarnia-Lambton whenever city staff deal with tax sales or surplus land.

Council is on board and had high praise for Habitat’s work.

“We want to come to mind when staff hear about land opportunities,” Reaume said.  “We want to ensure Habitat is at the table.”

As for RealeSmith, he said the Sarnia Urban Blight website has had good success. Twelve of the 14 properties originally posted have been fixed up or sold.

“But there are more to add,” he said. “The city needs to keep enforcing property standard bylaws. It also needs to be sure Habitat has a chance to bid on tax sales.”

 

REPORT CARD ON HABITAT SARNIA-LAMBTON

* Habitat’s ReStore on London Line is ranked #7 in Canada for sales productivity;

* Sarnia-Lambton Habitat is a centre for excellence in housing innovation, as well as health and safety;

* It is the first Habitat affiliate in Canada to partner with agencies like Community Living to provide housing for individuals with developmental challenges;

* The first Habitat Handyman program in Canada to provide low-cost home maintenance and improvement to low-income homeowners;

* Habitat Handyman’s inaugural year in 2016 provided services to 81 local families;

* Has provided affordable homes for 50 families since forming in 1994. Thirty-three have been in the past five years. Ten other houses renovated and resold.

 

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