The reality of home ownership for many families in the Philomath-Corvallis area has become more difficult to reach in recent years as housing prices have soared to levels beyond their reach.

The cost of living serves as a challenge for people trying to save for a down payment. Available programs to help people get into a home can help but the fact remains that the prices have gone up so much that it's not feasible for some to work a high mortgage payment into the family budget.

Dulce Madrigal-Lopez and her family is among those who found a path into a home through Benton Habitat for Humanity, an organization that partners with communities and low-income families to construct affordable houses.

"Our dream was to have a home of our own to be able to raise our children in," Madrigal-Lopez said through an interpreter. "My husband and I are so thankful for the ability of Habitat to help so many people achieve their dreams."

Madrigal-Lopez's comments provided a personal touch to Benton Habitat's Hope Builder Luncheon, staged Thursday over the noon hour at Philomath Scout Lodge.

The annual event highlights Benton Habitat's impact and outlines the necessity for the organization's work. The luncheon is also an opportunity to solicit those in attendance to contribute to the cause, such as pulling out the checkbook or committing to helping at a build site.

Benton Habitat for Humanity has a six-home project in Philomath with the new Woodlands development on Quail Glenn Drive west of North 19th Street. In 2018, the city approved Benton Habitat’s development application to subdivide the 1.04-acre of property into six lots.

Karen Rockwell, Benton Habitat’s executive director, said the organization hopes to stage a groundbreaking ceremony in June. Through its program, she has said in the past that the homes' sale prices will be below $200,000.

Affordable housing has been a local and regional topic in recent years through rising construction costs, which developers obviously pass on to home buyers and renters.

"Right now in Benton County, four out of every 10 renters spend more than half of their income on where they live," said Shannon Vilhauer, Habitat for Humanity Oregon's executive director. "So each month, if you get two paychecks a month, one of them goes right to your home."

Vilhauer, who was the event's featured speaker, told the audience that "it's up to us to fix it" with society at a critical point in history where meaningful change is necessary.

"Part of what got us into this mess right here today, are broken policies," Vilhauer said. "While we're not responsible for these broken policies, it is up to us to fix them. Not everything that I'm going to ask you to say yes to is going to be easy. ... Changes are needed and some of them might be uncomfortable."

Vilhauer transitioned into discussions of various efforts on a statewide basis, including on the legislative front such as House Bill 2001. Introduced by House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), the idea behind the bill is to require cities with a population greater than 10,000 and counties with a population greater than 15,000 to allow middle housing in lands zoned for single-family dwellings within an urban growth boundary.

Vilhauer said such a law would "make it easier to build duplexes and triplexes throughout neighborhoods" — a "welcome in my backyard" approach.

"I think we are actually on the cusp of a cultural revolution," Vilhauer said. "What we have now is a culture of exclusion. What we want is a culture of investment. Our neighbors investing in communities where we've lived with children side by side with one another. We believe that parents deserve the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their children."

Vilhauer lauded the efforts of Benton Habitat, including what she described as "the most robust, critical home-repair program in the state" and for building "the first net zero energy Habitat for Humanity home in Oregon right here."

Vilhauer also talked about Benton Habitat's innovative approach to being able to serve more people more quickly. The Woodlands development provided the perfect example.

"These homes that are going to be built right here in Philomath are going to be permanently affordable," Vilhauer said. "For the first family to buy them, they are going to meet Habitat's income criteria and someday in the future when another household comes in and wants to purchase those homes, they're going to meet Habitat's income criteria, too."

Through what is known as a land trust model, the component that helps keep the homes affordable involves Benton Habitat holding ownership of the land and selling improvements on it. Through that type of arrangement, the cost of land is not included in the purchase price.

The homeowner would lease the land with long-term rights where the house sits while maintaining many of the same advantages that other homeowners enjoy. When the home is sold, a resale formula keeps the house affordable for the next family.

Mayor Eric Niemann, who was among the lineup of Thursday's speakers, believes in the positive impact that an organization like Benton Habitat can have on a community, mentioning Francisco Garibay and Gabriela Rodriguez-Garibay and their six children, who were chosen to live in the Woodlands subdivision.

"We have a good history of working with Benton Habitat for Humanity for the last 20 years and on behalf of the city, we're excited to work with you," Niemann said.

Other participants in the Hope Builder Luncheon included Pastor Jeremy Lucke of Peace Lutheran Church with the invocation; Van Melick, Benton Habitat board president with opening remarks; and Pastor Josh VanTil of Renew Church with details on how those in attendance could help.

For information on the organization, visit its website at www.bentonhabitat.org.

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