Make homeownership attainable

When you think about critical housing issues, who do you associate with that thought? The impoverished? The homeless? People living in tents? I think of Virginia Mattson. And Virginia thought about homeownership.

Virginia Mattson died April 21 at the age of 91, Virginia had long been an active volunteer with South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity: chairing various committees, serving a term as president, and always available to do a home visit and meet a prospective partner family.

A retired attorney, she served as an informal counsel and helped draft many of our early deeds and notes. Mattson believed in Habitat and all but donated the land in the late-1990’s for Habitat’s first multi-unit development, Covenant Court, on Fones Road.

At Virginia’s memorial service, a few dozen friends and family spoke.

For me, one remembrance stood out. Ms. Mattson’s granddaughter had come to stay with her when she was in her early twenties. She recalled that she unpacked, had lunch, relaxed and then Virginia called her to the kitchen table.

Virginia laid out the plan: Here’s how long it will take for you to save enough for a down payment for a home; here’s how much you’ll need for the monthly payment; and this is how long you’ll be paying it. Now, let’s get started.

Affordable homeownership as a norm – that idea really resonates with me. Not ownership as a hope or dream, but as an achievable reality that can help to define a person, his or her life and the path to the future.

We are fortunate to live in a country that encourages and rewards homeownership because it promotes stability, savings and the creation of an intergenerational safety-net, if needed. For Mattson’s generation, owning a home was the promise of America fulfilled, and it should be so today as well.

My father, who is a hero of mine, did nothing heroic during the Korean War. Well, other than to protect the Brooklyn Navy Yard from attack by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. “And, successfully, too,” a new acquaintance of Habitat laughingly pointed out when I told the story a few weeks back.

But, when his hitch was up, he was rewarded with the GI Bill that included not only an education, but the VA loan, which put my mom and dad, along with millions of WWII and Korean War veterans and their families, into their first home.

In doing so, this federal program helped define the lives of what Tom Brokaw calls the “Greatest Generation.”

So important was homeownership to my mother’s Irish immigrant parents in 1920’s New York, that despite the loss of my grandfather’s right hand and 10 mouths to feed, they scrimped and saved enough money – during the Depression nonetheless – to buy land and build a home in Staten Island. Today, still in the family, the house stands despite Hurricane Sandy’s best effort.

Washington State ranks as the 15th most expensive state for rental housing, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Low-income households and families pay an especially high price for costly rentals. Families burdened by housing costs move frequently, resulting in high stress and poorer health. Children engage in riskier behavior and struggle in school. More than one-fourth of all children in Washington state lack affordable housing.

In Thurston County, low-income households face severe challenges. With the average monthly cost of a local 3-bedroom apartment at $1,308 a month, families earning minimum wage need to work three to four full-time jobs just to afford rent. Habitat families pay half of that amount for a home they own.

Habitat for Humanity, unfortunately, is the only builder of owner-occupied homes for the very-low income in Thurston County. Yet every home completed creates a new tax base, equity and family stability while building dignity, self sufficiency and neighborhoods.

I think Thurston County could honor Virginia Mattson’s memory and build a stronger community by encouraging other builders, both for-profit and nonprofit, to help house all residents who want to do more than dream of a home of their own.

Curt Andino is the executive director of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and a member of The Olympian Board of Contributors. He may be reached at andino@ spshabitat.org.