By Marissa Willman
As cities and organizations across the state scramble to pick up the pieces of the recently shattered redevelopment agencies, Habitat for Humanity of the Coachella Valley Director Jeff Moritz is trying to redefine the way his organization operates to keep providing homes despite the significant loss of funding.
“We’re in a state of flux,” Moritz said, “like all the other agencies and not-for-profits that were dependent on the redevelopment agencies. What we’re doing is reinventing ourselves.”
Last year, California discontinued its redevelopment programs in an effort to balance the state budget. Cities and redevelopment agencies sued and the case was eventually heard by the California Supreme Court.
“Nobody thought that the decision that came down by the Supreme Court was going to be the one that came down,” Moritz said.
In December, the state’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of AB 126, the assembly bill that dissolved California’s redevelopment agencies. The Supreme Court also ruled that AB 127, a bill that allowed redevelopment agencies to continue to operate if they sent millions of dollars to Sacramento, was unconstitutional.
Cities are now tasked with sorting through the legal and financial issues that have appeared with the ruling. One such issue is keeping three families from moving into Habitat homes in Indio, where three completed homes cannot legally be transferred to Habitat for Humanity due to the legal issues resulting from the abrupt dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies.
Two of the homes were funded by a grant from Home Depot and the third by federal grant money, according to Moritz. They now sit vacant because the city is unable to deed the land to Habitat.
Successor agencies to the redevelopment agencies must meet the redevelopment agency’s financial obligations that were made before their dissolution on June 27th, 2011. Habitat’s original contract for the project was dated before the redevelopment agencies were dissolved, but the location of the homes was defined in a later agreement.
Last month, Indio’s Oversight Board of the Successor Agency to the Redevelopment to the Redevelopment Agency approved the transfer of the three lots to Habitat. The transfer was struck down by the state treasurer’s office, however, because the transfer agreement was dated after June 27th, 2011.
Moritz said he is confident the City of Indio is on the organization’s side but its hands are tied.
“The city can’t do anything about it and the lawyers don’t care,” Moritz said.
As the organization waits for an agreement to be reached, Moritz is concerned about the three families who cannot move into their homes. One family, a mother with four children, is currently sharing a 3-bedroom house with her sister, her sister’s four children, and their parents.
Another family lives in a garage.
“And summer’s coming,” Moritz said. “The other [family] is living in a house that needs to be burned down just to kill the rats.”
Redevelopment funds accounted for about 65 percent of the construction budget for the three constructed homes and the planned construction of four other homes in Indio.
“We have four more houses [planned in Indio] and we can’t even get that yet because nobody knows anything about the law,” Moritz said. “Instead of doing a phase-out, they cut it off…Basically, low-income housing that was dependent on redevelopment agencies ended or was suspended, like us. Just stuck. We can’t even get [federal grant] money because it’s part of the redevelopment agencies.”
Since 1989, Habitat for Humanity of the Coachella Valley has built 32 homes. The local branch of the national organization covers an area that stretches from Blythe to 29 Palms.
Habitat for Humanity provides affordable housing to qualified applicants, using a screening process that determines the family’s need and ability to repay the interest-free mortgage. The organization holds the 30-year mortgage and monthly payments can be as low as $200 a month, according to Moritz.
“We rank [the families] by severity of need because we can’t build houses for everybody,” Moritz said. “We just don’t have the money.”
Moritz said he is also working to dispel misconceptions the public may have about the organization.
“I would say about fifty percent of the people we speak with think we give away houses,” Moritz said. “Habitat is about a hand up, not a hand out. We sell houses, we don’t give them away.”
In addition to paying a mortgage, families are required to volunteer at least 200 hours on the construction of their home or other Habitat for Humanity projects.
With the loss of redevelopment funds, Moritz said Habitat is returning to its volunteer roots.
“What we’re doing is involving community. We can no longer be supported by RDAs because they no longer exist; cities don’t know where they’re going to get the money,” Moritz said. “I’ve got 40 new people on my waiting list and I’ve got people calling everyday [asking] when we’re going to have another workshop. They want to sign up. And we want to get them through the system.”
But even with stronger reliance on volunteers, money remains an issue for the non-profit.
“We’re in constant fundraising mode…We’re capital-intensive. We’re talking $30,000 to $50,000 per house that we have to raise,” Moritz said. “And if we’re building four houses, that’s $200,000. It’s hard. If we didn’t have the federal grant money, we’d be raising $700,000.”
Earlier this month, Habitat for Humanity and Tommy Bahama’s hosted the 13th annual Date Palm Classic golf tournament at Bighorn Golf Club. The tournament is one of the largest fundraisers for Habitat for Humanity of the Coachella Valley, and Moritz said the event was a success. Tthe organization is looking forward to hosting additional fundraising events throughout the year.
Habitat for Humanity’s Palm Desert office is also home to ReStore, which sells new and gently-used donated fixtures, furniture and construction materials. Items are sold at a fraction of their retail price and the proceeds fund Habitat’s operations.
“It’s been an incredible success for us,” Moritz said.
The director hopes that these successes will lead to additional construction projects starting in the near future. One of the most rewarding parts of working with Habitat is watching the family take ownership of their new home, Moritz said.
“Handing the keys to the family? Nothing beats it,” Moritz said. “There’s not a dry eye in the place.”
To learn more about Habitat for Humanity in the Coachella Valley, volunteer opportunities or to make a donation, visit habitatcv.org.