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Habitat’s ‘return on investment': Building strong communities, strong futures

Volunteers break ground on the Walton Woods neighborhood after the land donation in 2009. Donated photo Volunteers break ground on the Walton Woods neighborhood after the land donation in 2009. Donated photo

It’s  tough out there for anyone hoping to gain entry into the housing market. 

The North Carolina Housing Coalition 2023 report on housing need in Haywood shows the Fair Market Rent average in Haywood is $1,009 a month, requiring an average wage of $19.40 an hour. The gap between those averages means 53% of renters have difficulty affording their homes, along with 20% of homeowners.

Haywood Habitat Director Ryan Newell, a Haywood native, points out that 27% of Haywood residents are living what’s defined as “housing cost burdened,’’ meaning more than a third of household income is going to the bare bones of keeping a roof over one’s head — rent, basic utilities and insurance.

Taking a theme from “It’s a Wonderful Life,’’ it’s a very safe bet those numbers would be more dire if Habitat weren’t on the scene. With a dedicated staff and engaged volunteers, it’s been able to find solutions that put roofs over the heads of more than 80 families here.

Haywood Habitat for Humanity is an old hand at rehabbing homes and acquiring and developing land for new homes in Haywood County, having been in the game here for 33 years. It has completed 56 homes, and 57, 58 and 59 are in the works.

Haywood Habitat can crack the equations needed for the challenges of a difficult market, but there’s one thing it can’t make: land. That’s why it’s seeking out folks in the community who want to be part of the housing solution who have available, buildable land at fair or less than market rates, in addition to monetary contributions and volunteers for job sites or Habitat’s ReStore.

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When asked about the common “NIMBY’’ (Not In My Back Yard) reaction to the siting of a Habitat home in a neighborhood, Newell points out the facts on the ground. “Look at what we’ve done,” says Newell. “We completed one neighborhood about three years ago, and it’s actually increased values for the rest of the neighborhood. We’re building attractive homes that are extremely energy-efficient.”

A 2009 land donation from Sarah Jane League and her late husband, Gary Smith, led to Walton Woods, a neighborhood of eight homes. “My family had a little over six acres,” League said, “and when I retired back here my husband and I thought about what we should do with it. I didn’t see a need to keep all of the land.

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Sarah Jane League and her late husband, Gary Smith, donated land in 2009 that eventually became Walton Woods, a neighborhood of eight homes. Donated photo

“We came up with the idea that we would donate the land off our property to Habitat and they came up with the idea of having a community, which became Walton Woods,” League said. “This is the first time they had enough land to come up with a community. As you know, affordable housing in this part of the country is difficult at best, so we wanted to be able to give back to the community in that sense and offer a way for the community to have housing and give them an opportunity to own a home. Habitat has such a wonderful mission in doing that.

“It’s a wonderful little community… it fulfilled all the promise that I hoped it would.”

Habitat client Elan Richards moved into her home 10 months ago and says the experience has been life changing. She says her mortgage payment is $300 a month less than what she’d been paying for an aged single-wide trailer. She earned too much for other assistance programs. She says she now has breathing room in her budget and “it’s hard to measure what my stress level is but I’d say it’s 100 times less now.

“Just the feeling of being able to have a safe, clean, happy place to come home to is wonderful – my daughter mentions it all the time. We love our house and know our neighbors. Several homes on our stretch are Habitat. We helped build each other’s homes. We know each other and look out for each other. I’ve never had that before, it’s really amazing.”

That echoes Newell’s comments regarding Haywood Habitat for Humanity: “We’re not just building homes; we’re building hope and transforming lives.  By providing safe, affordable houses, we empower families to break the cycle of poverty and build a brighter future for themselves and generations to come.”

Haywood Habitat for Humanity is seeking landowners to support affordable housing initiatives in Haywood County. To learn more about Haywood Habitat, its programs, land donation criteria and more, call Ryan Newell at 828.558.2146 or go to

Jim Buchanan is a longtime mountain journalist. This article was written in support of Haywood Habitat for Humanity’s Every Holiday Begins with Home campaign.

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