Insurance costs keep Miss. Habitat houses locked

Published 4:03 pm Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In four states along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, Habitat for Humanity came with a mission to build hundreds of homes during a spring blitz so people pushed into poverty after Katrina would have the chance to own a home.

Many of the dozens of completed houses in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama are occupied or will soon be dedicated. But not in Mississippi, where only six of the 30 homes are filled.

Potential homeowners are having a hard time meeting the program’s requirement to save about $3,500 in an escrow account for a year’s worth of taxes and insurance, said Chris Monforton, chief executive officer for Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

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And most of the account would be for insurance, with just $500 going toward taxes, said Duane Bates, spokesman for Habitat for Humanity International.

“It is a struggle. That is not unique to Habitat families. It’s a struggle to most first-time buyers,” Monforton said.

But Hurricane Katrina, which hit in 2005, has exacerbated the average challenges homebuyers face.

The storm nearly wiped out Mississippi’s coast, taking with it affordable housing. That is compounded by some insurance companies, scared off by the hurricane risks, greatly increasing their rates and others pulling out of the region altogether.

Since Katrina, rates along the Gulf Coast have increased about 33 percent in some areas, depending on how close a property is to the water, said Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney.

And three years after the storm, the housing crisis endures, with just under 6,000 families still living in temporary structures in the state.

In May, volunteers, including former President Jimmy Carter, came to help. They began work on about 250 homes across the Gulf Coast. Some were completed, while others remain under construction.

Habitat houses are never sold for the appraised value but usually for thousands of dollars less. Along with the financial obligation, low-income families must invest hundreds of hours in sweat equity that can be earned by attending home-buying classes and helping to build other houses.

And families need to raise some money to cover some fees, which have turned out to be less in the other three states where the homes were built. Homeowners’ insurance rates skyrocketed after Katrina in other Gulf Coast regions as well. But Habitat affiliates differ in the amount and structure of their escrow accounts, Bates said.

The New Orleans Habitat for Humanity dedicated 25 houses from the May event. About 80 percent of them are occupied, said Elise Tusa, communications director for the organization. The escrow account is about $1,700.

In Houston, where half of the 16 homes completed are occupied, families must have $2,000 to put into escrow.

Habitat’s only financial requirement is a $500 down payment in Mobile, Ala. By year’s end, all 11 blitz homes will be inhabited, said Anita Havel, a spokeswoman for the Alabama chapter.

“A lot of people are still living in substandard housing,” Havel said of the area. “They were on the edge of poverty and the storm pushed them into deep poverty.”

An 1,100-square-foot Habitat home on the Mississippi coast is about $88,000, Monforton said.

Monforton said the Salvation Army contributes $10,000 to each house “to be able to buy down the mortgage because we knew insurance went up,” he said.

That money averages out to about $36 a month over 30 years. When insurance costs for some homeowners have gone from $80 a month to $300 a month, the Salvation Army donation “just got wiped away,” Monforton said.

All of the Mississippi homes have been assigned. Some of the families are turning to outside grant programs for assistance with varying degrees of success. Families who qualify for up to a $48,000 grant through the state’s Katrina work force housing program were waiting to receive that money before closing. But Monforton said the grant can’t be used for taxes and insurance.

Tracey Robinson, 40, just moved into her Habitat home after receiving a grant from the city of Pascagoula to help cover her insurance costs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently stopped paying Robinson’s rent at a house she moved into after she left a FEMA trailer.

“My kids and I were at the point where we really didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Robinson.