Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit organization touted for its ability to bring together affordable housing with people in need. The group uses free labor in the form of sweat equity from potential homeowners and volunteers. The end result is modest homes with no frills and a monthly mortgage payment around $400. It is a popular and welcome program in many communities nationwide.

            Santa Rosa County has a number of Habitat for Humanity houses. One neighborhood, however, is not happy about Habitat getting so close to home.

            Gerald Woods gathered 60 signatures from his neighbors around the Avalon area including the intersection of Tom Sawyer Rd. and Huckleberry Finn—in support of blocking a Habitat for Humanity development in the neighborhood. They signed the petition, asking the county to step in and claim the land for public use for resolution of eminent domain, stating concerns of property devaluation, potential crime and the reduction of taxes.

            Mike Motes, a general contractor of 35 years and property owner across the street from the project, wrote the petition. It was filed with the county in late February and he has yet to receive an official response regarding the status of the petition.

            "Our house is nearly 4,000 square feet," Motes said. "All of our neighbors are above 2,000 - 3,000 square feet and are all on at least one acre."  Most Habitat for Humanity homes in Santa Rosa County are about 1,100 square feet. Mote says the size alone depreciates the value of other houses in the area.

            The Santa Rosa County property appraiser's office confirms Habitat purchased a vacant, one-acre lot last year and subdivided it into four, quarter-acre lots. The non-profit bought the properties located at the corner of Tom Sawyer Rd. and Huckleberry Finn Rd. The land was zoned correctly and no rules were broken regarding the division of the lot into four separate parcels, according to the property appraiser's office.

            Regardless, the residents are concerned about the difference in lot size and building size having a negative effect on their own investments. 

            "I can't understand them coming here and buying that acre, then subdividing it when all the other houses are on an acre or more," Woods said. "Please don't do this, cause this is going to devastate property values."

            The petition drive was initiated after residents attempted to purchase the property from Habitat directly. Woods said the vacant lots were assessed at $5,300 and sold for around $10,000. The residents offered to buy the lots for $40,000, but were told by Habitat that the organization had too much invested in the lots after surveying costs and closing costs.

             Natalie Shearlock, director of community engagement for Habitat said the non-profit receives offers on property all the time. The organization is responsible to be good stewards of its public and private donations.

            "If it doesn't make good business sense, then we would most likely not sell," Shearlock said.



            "If you want to build in here, you're welcome," Motes said. "But don't build something that's going to devalue the property."

            Motes said he would like to see a larger home built on the property to keep values stable, if possible.

            "They should build something like 1,600 square feet," Motes said. "They should compliment the area as far as size."

            Motes said that Habitat has overgrown its mission statement and reach with the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), a federal grant program created to curtail the impact of abandoned and foreclosed homes.

            "They forgot the intent of the stabilization program," Motes said. "It has a profound effect on the community."

            Shearlock disagreed with that notion. While there was an increase in building, resulting from a second round of grant funding in NSP2, she says property values might actually rise as a result of the project.

            The new, energy efficient homes would be appraised by an independent appraiser. The average of the fair-market appraisals have valued the Habitat homes at an average of $80,000-$90,000.

            "If the homes in the surrounding properties are older or mobile homes," Shearlock said, "there's a good chance that a Habitat home will be worth more."


Reduction of Taxes:

            Proponents of the petition say tax revenues are reduced as a result of building smaller homes, because the homes will fall under a zero tax base.

            "It's a common misconception about the value of Habitat homes," Shearlock said. "They are sold to families and financed for zero mortgage. They pay property taxes just like everyone else in the county."

            Last year, Habitat homeowners paid $68,977 in taxes, according to Shearlock. Habitat acts as the mortgage lender, and holds funds in escrow, and pays the taxes outright. She continued, suggesting tax revenue would increase the tax base by splitting the property into four parcels. The average Habitat owner pays $400 in property taxes a year.

            The standard home exemption is $25,000 on homes up to $50,000, according to the property appraiser's office. It increased by another $25,000 four-to-six years ago for a home assessed value between $50,000 and $75,000, but only exempts non-school taxes. 


Job Creation:

            Supporters of the petition say that the non-profit is siphoning jobs and dollars from the local community with their business model. The homes are built with volunteer labor, a lot of it the homeowner themselves as part of the effort, and grant money is utilized.

            Motes, a general contractor of 35 years, says they organization is driving up the price of lots and using donated materials. He said he creates an average of four to six jobs per home he builds. He says he has worked on HUD homes, government contracts and projects for the school board in the past.

            "Unfortunately, they're not contributing to our lots," Motes said. "They buy all these properties that have a profound effect on our builders."

            He said they have bought property all over the county with federal grant money.

            "They're the largest builder in Northwest Florida," he said. "Other people can't pay the price for their agendas or whatever."


Habitat for Humanity says

            Shearlock agrees it might be possible they are the largest, new-home builders in the county, overtaking D.R. Horton. In 2012, Habitat built 212 homes in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties combined. They were wrapping up with NSP2 funds.

            "It was new money brought to the community," Shearlock said. "We were building at a very fast pace."

            But the non-profit disagreed with the notion jobs were being lost due to volunteer labor and donated materials.

            "While a portion of out homes are built by volunteers, over half of the labor is subcontracted," Shearlock said. "A majority of the work is paid for with local subcontractors."

            She said volunteers do the rough framing, landscaping and painting. The company pays subcontractors to handle the plumbing, electrical, lay the foundation and finish the roof.

            New home construction will slow dramatically after the grant is finished, according to Shearlock. And they expect to return to regular levels of construction. Moving forward, they expect to build around 50 homes in the two-county area.


            The petition stated concerns from members of the community about the "element of crime that is associated with low-income housing."

            Motes speculated crime would rise as a result of construction of the Habitat homes. He stated there was a lack of respect associated with the homes.

            "Most of these people go through life without any achievement," he said. "Idle hands have a tendency to get you in trouble."

            "It's just a misconception that people have with affordable housing," Shearlock said. "They go through a strict selection process. They go through a criminal check, a credit check and take courses on how to care for their home."

            Shearlock said they build homes for hardworking families and for those who are working to improve the community.