The before-and-after picture is dramatic for people who move into a Habitat for Humanity home in Minnesota.
Once they move into their new homes, Habitat families make more money and use fewer government social programs. Their kids do better in school. Families feel safer and spend more time together. All in all, 92 percent of Habitat homeowners say their lives are better since they moved into their homes.
“We’re able to completely change a family’s life,” said Kristin Skaar, a spokeswoman for Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota. “It’s definitely a hand up vs. a handout.”
These and other positive social and financial outcomes are revealed in a newly released study by Wilder Research, which looked at 402 families that moved into Habitat homes between 1989 and 2014. The group was nearly evenly split between the Twin Cities metro region and outstate Minnesota.
Paul Mattessich, executive director of Wilder Research, said the results are among the most positive of any study he’s been involved with.
“As a researcher, of course, you’re always cautious and qualify things. But it’s a pretty strong finding,” he said.
Habitat families, Mattessich said, “are not just receiving a service, but they’re transforming their environment. And that is connected to so many aspects of life that we know, in total, constitute health and wellness.”
To qualify for a Habitat home, individuals or families must make between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area median income. In rural Minnesota, that’s a range of about $19,000 to $36,000; in the metro area, it’s about $24,000 to $49,000.
Homeowners invest between 200 and 500 hours of sweat equity alongside Habitat staff members and volunteers, then purchase the home with a zero-percent-interest mortgage.
Habitat’s 31 affiliates have built about 2,300 homes in the state since the mid-1980s. The group builds about 50 homes a year in the Twin Cities and about 40 in the rest of the state.
‘Chasing the dream’
Two years ago, Sarah Olson and Abdi Mohamed moved from a two-bedroom apartment in Lauderdale to a three-bedroom Habitat home in the Hawthorne neighborhood of north Minneapolis.
Their mortgage payment is several hundred dollars less than their previous rent, and their energy-efficient home costs about $15 a month to heat and light.
“We can save money now. It used to be paycheck to paycheck,” Mohamed said. “We are chasing the American dream. We have unlimited opportunities.”
Mohamed, who has been working in security and customer service, is making plans to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He hopes to become an immigration lawyer one day. Olson is planning to enroll in community college to get certified as a dental assistant.
Their plans are typical of many Habitat homeowners: The Wilder study found that in 92 percent of Habitat homes, at least one adult started, completed or has made plans to enroll in higher education or job training.
The couple’s 7-year-old twins, Sofia and Jamal, now play and ride their bikes outside, activities their parents didn’t feel comfortable letting them do in their old neighborhood. They also love helping to rake leaves, their mother said.
In addition to providing sweat equity, Habitat homeowners are required to take a variety of training classes in budgeting, maintenance, safety and other aspects of homeownership.
“You don’t have to know anything — they will train you,” Mohamed said.
The ability of families to play a role in shaping their own destiny is a key contributor to well-being, said Melissa Hensley, a faculty member in social work at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
“Most individuals want to be engaged in a constructive activity,” she said. “This is something people feel they’re a part of and can be proud of.”
The study’s findings confirm the importance of stable, secure housing, she said.
“Many of the families that come to Habitat had transitory living conditions,” Mattessich said. “They’ve had to move from place to place. They’ve had neighborhood experiences that weren’t good for their children.
“Enabling them to move into a place where they have stability and safety, they can blossom.”