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   Habitat for Humanity - the worldwide nonprofit org known best for new builds - has been focusing  equally so on meeting the needs of existing homeowners since the housing market took a hit five years ago.
   Christopher Ptomey, director of federal relations at Habitat for Humanity International, says the organizational shift began in 2008 when Habitat’s local affiliates - their volunteer-manned chapters - identified scores of homeowners with properties in dire need of structural repair and weatherization assistance.
   Habitat includes 35 state support organizations, of which Illinois is one, and more than 1,500 local affiliates. In Southwestern Illinois, the Lewis and Clark HFH affiliate in Collinsville includes seven area chapters: Alton, Edwardsville/Glen Carbon, Collinsville, Highland, Wood River, O’Fallon and Bond County.
   Before the economic downturn, one of Habitat’s key initiatives in Washington D.C. was lobbying Congress to create a national housing trust fund. But with the subprime mortgage debacle, says Ptomey, a scarcity of federal dollars forced the discussion on longer-range Habitat housing issues to be put on hold.
   “There just weren’t the resources to create a housing trust fund at that time, with the crisis that had overtaken the nation’s economy and particularly the housing market,” said Ptomey. “Now, there may be an opportunity to begin to reengage that issue. We were also lobbying (pre-housing crisis) for a homeownership development tax credit, but because of the budgetary issues and Congressional gridlock, now still isn’t the time.”
   It was the time, however, for Habitat for Humanity International to team with state and local counterparts in meeting the needs of those with existing housing needs. But Ptomey says Habitat is still doing plenty of new builds annually. “We’re the sixth-largest homebuilder in the United States and the largest private homebuilder, according to Builder magazine,” he said. “We work in all 50 states and in 80 countries, in 200,000 communities. And in FY 2012 we experienced a 16 percent increase in construction solutions by serving a record 94,618 families (worldwide). But particularly what we’ve remained focused on in the U.S., as our country remains just on the verge of getting out of the recession and the overall housing crisis, is going into existing communities. We ask people what their specific needs are to be able to remain in the home they’re in, and we’re working alongside them to make those improvements happen.”
   Weatherization is a large part of Habitat’s focus, according to Ptomey. “Our affiliates are building and renovating to a very high standard these days,” he said. “A number of them are now building to a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard,” Ptomey added, noting that LEED, a specific green building certification program, includes guidelines in areas such as water efficiency, choosing specific  types of construction  materials and the monitoring of indoor environmental quality.
   Gene Huxhold, a board member with Habitat for Humanity of Illinois, says local affiliates commonly include a tankless water heater in their build or renovation if affordable. It’s not extravagance, he’s quick to point out; it’s about making these homes more efficient, reducing the utility bills for their budget-conscious homeowners (their Habitat partner family) and ultimately making it affordable for that family to own and maintain the home for a long time to come.
   “It’s called A Brush with Kindness, and it’s a Habitat program that started just a few years back,” said Huxhold. “Habitat selects partner families based on income, need and willingness to partner. Our local affiliates use volunteer labor and donated materials to keep costs low and take no profit for their services. We make a no-interest loan to the homeowner to cover the cost of the project, and payments are placed in a revolving fund to serve others in need thru this specific outreach.”
    Paint manufacturer Valspar is co-founder and underwriter of A Brush with Kindness.
   “Up until just a few years ago,” Huxhold added, “the vast majority of Habitat’s work was new builds. Then the housing crisis manifested itself. With the recession, many homeowners find themselves in a far different situation than they might have otherwise. People may be needing to buy homes in disrepair, cities may be selling homes that need a lot of work. A more efficient home, a weatherized home, could mean more disposable income for a family trying hard to make it all work.”
    Families who live in safe, well-maintained homes, Ptomey says, and whose neighborhoods are revitalized, facilitate places where community connections are made and ultimately - hopefully - where affordable housing inventory is preserved.
   “That’s why Habitat feels strongly about prioritizing this focus of our mission,” he said.