Habitat for Humanity Fixes Up Foreclosures

  • House leader Steve Denman helps Kallista Walker build a knee wall in the attic of this house. Walker is putting in part of her 300 hours of sweat equity so she can qualify for a house of her own. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Michigan has consistently been on a top ten list nobody wants to be on. That’s the list of the top highest home foreclosure rates in the country, but for some people this means opportunity.

The group Habitat for Humanity typically builds new homes, but now, some of the chapters in Michigan are taking advantage of all the foreclosures around the state. They’re buying foreclosed homes and renovating them, instead of building new.

The group says it’s less expensive to renovate an existing home than it is to build a new one. It can save resources, but it can also mean dealing with a few surprises.

Detroit Habitat for Humanity

Map of foreclosures in Michigan

A bike ride through Detroit with David Byrne


(sawing sound)

This yellow ranch house in Ypsilanti Township has been gutted, stripped down to the studs. Up in the attic, there are a bunch of volunteers in hard hats and face masks.


Sam Moore is a volunteer. He says they’re making the house more energy efficient.

“We’re just building knee walls inside this attic to hold loose fill insulation on top of the house so it won’t blow all over the place.”

This house was built in the 1950’s and it had basically zero insulation.

Steve Denman is in charge of overseeing this renovation for the Washtenaw County Habitat chapter. He says their main goal is making the home more affordable for its new owner.

“We want the homeowner to not pay so many bills in energy. She’s going to have a tremendous amount of less money to pay.”

These renovated homes are being sold to low-income families at cost, with a zero interest mortgage. And they’re usually first-time homeowners.

The Washtenaw County chapter switched over to just doing renovations a couple years ago when the market went south.

Megan Rodgers is with Habitat. She says buying and fixing up foreclosures costs about two-thirds of building a brand new home. So they can do more of them in a year, and get more families into homes.

But Rodgers says there’s no question building new is easier.

“In new builds we had five specs of homes, you could build the wall in a warehouse, and have it delivered. With a renovation you just really never know what you’re getting into, how long that task might take.”

Rodgers says they’ve come into houses that have been stripped of all the electrical wiring and all the copper. Sometimes the siding is gone. And there can be bigger problems.

“A lot of these homes have lead. Lead abatement is extremely expensive to do, so we have chosen to have several members of our construction team go through lead abatement training.”


Kallista Walker is one of the people who’s buying a renovated foreclosure from Habitat. She’s here working, putting in some of the 300 sweat equity hours she needs before she can close on her house in a different neighborhood.

“This will be my first time ever owning my own home where I can paint and put colors on my own walls. That’s the thing I’m most excited about and having a garage of my own and a back yard, so I’m excited, I’m really really excited.”

The Washtenaw County Habitat group has been fixing up several foreclosures in the same neighborhoods, to try to add some stability to the neighborhoods. Kallista Walker says she thinks that’s a good idea.

“I love it because that means you’re changing the face of the community, you know what I mean? When you drive through and see houses where no one’s living in them, no one’s lovin’ on them, no one’s doing the yards and all the other houses are sorta nice. I mean, it changes the feeling and it draws different things to it.”

She’s hoping to move into her new home with her two sons and her mom in a few months.

The Washtenaw Habitat group says they’ll keep buying and fixing up these homes as long as they can continue to afford them.

Rebecca Williams, the Environment Report.

Fixing Up Foreclosures

  • Megan McNally in front of her home in Buffalo. She purchased the house for $3,800. (Photo by Emma Jacobs)

In many older cities, some
neighborhoods are known for
their abandoned houses. A
lot of these will decay beyond
repair and end up as debris
in landfills. Emma Jacobs
takes us to one hard-hit
neighborhood, where one house
has become a laboratory for
doing green construction:


n many older cities, some
neighborhoods are known for
their abandoned houses. A
lot of these will decay beyond
repair and end up as debris
in landfills. Emma Jacobs
takes us to one hard-hit
neighborhood, where one house
has become a laboratory for
doing green construction:

(sound of climbing steps)

Last year, at age 20, Megan McNally bought a house.

”This is the front room. Um, this is gonna be the bathroom. Doesn’t look like much now. It’ll get there.”

Not just any house. She wanted to find a project in this neighborhood to tie to the environmental science she studied during the year.

While home from college for a summer, McNally had been working with a nonprofit, Buffalo Reuse. It works in a neighborhood of East Buffalo with rows of abandoned homes. She paid $3800 dollars at the city’s foreclosure auction for a small, wood-frame house that had been vacant for three years.

“I really wanted to help some effort in Buffalo and so I was trying to brainstorm and I sat down with Michael and we sort of came up with this idea of buying a house.”

(sound of truck)

Michael is–Michael Grainer, who runs Buffalo Reuse. We make a coffee run and he tells me this neighborhood is part of a city whose population has shrunk by half.

“What we’re trying to do is to build a base of projects that are undergoing some kind of transformation and also lots that are undergoing a transformation.”

McNally’s house looks like it’s in good shape, but it had also taken a lot of abuse.

“On the outside, it looks really great. You could move in tomorrow. But as I came in here the first weekend it was leaks that people didn’t take care of. There was…this floor we had to cut out because it was all rotted from black mold.”

McNally had no prior knowledge of home repair. Transforming this house soon escalated as she found she would be replacing the plumbing and heating. But in some way, she’s also found her lack of experience to be an asset in recruiting help.

Ken Hicks is helping to measure out a part for a radiator in the front room. He turned up near dusk one day last winter. McNally was under the house checking the foundation, and Hicks, a construction worker was helping out the owner next door. He saw her feet sticking out from underneath. When she crawled out they started talking.

“It was a big joke, you know. We went back and forth and I said, you know, it was just so weird to see you in that situation and that situation and that predicament. And we just started from there,”

Slow work during a down economy means Hicks spends more time on volunteer jobs. He’s become one of the main people McNally turns to with questions about plumbing and carpentry.

“Being really young, you can ask a lot of stupid questions, and people go, ‘Oh man, this girl,’ but then go on and like, answer it in a way where maybe they wouldn’t be so open with somebody else.”

“Anything you can possibly do wrong has been done has been done in this house. But all those things that I’m talking about are now corrected, and there’s so much more knowledge here.”

There’s still months of work left, but McNally knows she will be living here soon. She has learned both a lot of construction skills and a lot about teaching, herself. She holds workshops to help the neighbors who are left take on their own properties. Her house, still unfinished, is a good training ground for beginners. McNally also realized people are less afraid to approach her with their questions than the experts she first had teaching.

“It’s hard putting things together. And, I don’t know, there’s been times where you just want to sit down and you get so frustrated that you don’t know how to do something that I think it’s really important to have people there who say, whatever, it’s ok and it’s ok that you don’t know everything, because you know, once you figure it out or ask questions, or just do it (laughs) and hope that things work out for the best, they usually do.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Emma Jacobs.

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