Reinventing Affordable Housing

Cathy Lawrence and Ben Waltz, 2021
Cathy Lawrence and Ben Waltz (ThreeSixty Journalism/Christine Nguyen)

In the Twin Cities, Habitat for Humanity has primarily constructed single-family homes for immigrant families — but after the murder of George Floyd, the organization has decided to radically redefine its approach to affordable housing.  

In a conversation on the University of St. Thomas campus, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity’s chief development officer, Cathy Lawrence, said the organization had critically overlooked a group that needed their help: what Lawrence called “foundational Black families,” or direct descendants of African slaves.  

“There are generations of Black Americans who have never owned a home,” Lawrence said. 

Part of working with these communities involves listening to the specific housing needs of each client. Previously, Habitat built single-family homes on empty lots dispersed throughout the Twin Cities. But now, there are five new ways that families can buy a house. 

They can buy a newly constructed single-family home; buy a “next generation home” that was previously owned by another Habitat client; buy a starter home that was pre-purchased by Habitat; work with a real estate agent to buy their own house; or pick a house for Habitat to remodel. No matter what plan clients choose, Habitat will give them the “affordability gap” mortgage — mortgage payments set at 30% of their income.  

As well as working with new clientele, Habitat is hoping to scale up its operations. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Habitat traditionally built around 50 homes a year. This year, it is planning to close on 120 mortgages. 

“The plan is to scale (operations) about 20% or more a year; on top of that we’ll keep scaling, but the primary focus is on racial equity,” Lawrence said.  

Lawrence attributes these changes to a shift in the mentality of the nonprofit. Instead of acting as a savior, Habitat for Humanity aims to be a partner.  

“We are going to call it out in our strategic plan that we are going to do our partnerships differently. We are going to do a lot of listening and then acting in partnership with the folks we serve,” Lawrence said.  

This year, when the housing market boomed, Habitat acted quickly. Staff proactively bought starter homes across the metro area, knowing that prices could inflate. This flexibility allowed them to more specifically cater to their clients’ needs, especially clients who preferred to live in first- and second-ring suburbs, instead of in the inner city.   

Habitat plans to continue building unique homes to service clients’ needs; Lawrence said the next plan “will be higher density housing. We might build vertical condos … some families may want their first house to be a condo because they prefer that style of living.” 

Habitat hopes listening to these communities will allow them to better address the racial inequities in affordable housing. Providing homes to foundational Black families will help give families generational wealth, security and community.  

“We want to go from an organization that cares about equity to an equity organization,” Lawrence said. “We are really excited about that work.”

These reports on health equity were created by ThreeSixty Journalism’s summer 2021 News Reporter Academy high school students. The Academy and its theme of racism as a public health crisis were supported by Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield, which connected students with story topics and sources.