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Builders step in to level the field

SHALLOTTE, N.C. - Megan Derr and her husband, Michael Derr, had been on a discouraging, year-long house hunt before they found someone who could help them.

The Derrs, 21 and 19, respectively, have two small children. Their combined income is between $23,000 and $24,000 a year. Like most people in the coastal Carolinas whose annual wages are in that range, the best they could envision was rent-subsidized housing.

But with the help of a federal home-ownership program and a willing builder, the Derrs now find themselves living a dream. They should be in their new house by next summer.

"We thought we'd never get a break," Megan Derr said.

Home ownership in Brunswick, Horry and Georgetown counties is an elusive goal for most people whose income is less than $40,000 a year. Even at that salary, there's not much on the market; and with median home prices near or over $200,000 throughout the area, yearly income would have to be considerably more to make a purchase.

It's a situation that has drawn the attention of county officials and homebuilders in all three counties. While those in Horry are still working to develop a viable program, said Ralph Bussey, president of the Horry Georgetown Homebuilders Association, at least three builders in Brunswick County have begun building affordable homes or hope to close soon on land where they plan to put homes for the many who can't afford the median home price.

"We sort of started it with the mindset of helping our own workers," said Norm Rogers, who with his partner builds upscale homes in places such as the Winding River development in Brunswick County's fast-growing N.C. 211 corridor.

Rogers said his company has an option on 60 acres nearby where they hope to locate modular homes that could sell in the $120,000 to $150,000 range. Buyers would likely to be those who make $30,000 to $45,000 per year, but potentially less when considering government grant and loan programs designed for people whose income is well below the median.

Elaine Gililland, vice president of Plantation Builders in Southport, said she's been wanting to build affordable homes for a couple of years but didn't know the avenues to do so until she went to the three sessions of the Brunswick Affordable Housing Summit earlier this year.

There she learned about the state and federal programs that could help people with lower incomes buy homes and was able to create a package that brought together the company's first affordable home project and the Derrs.

The home, in Boiling Spring Lakes, will be on a 75-foot by 300-foot lot and will have 1,054 square feet with three bedrooms, two baths, a screened porch and a fence for about $139,000.

With a loan package through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for people who make no more than $40,000 a year, the Derrs' payment will be $517 per month, Gililland said - not appreciably more than the $494 Megan Derr said the couple soon will be spending to rent their apartment.

Gililland and Bussey would like to do more projects but said the trick is finding land inexpensive enough so that modest homes will still be affordable for lower income buyers.

Builders said they need to keep lot costs to $20,000 or less in order to build homes that could be bought by many in either county. Bussey said such land is still available in far western Horry County, but builders think the county could boost the effort by offering some of its surplus land for affordable home construction.

Gililland said she and her employees are always looking for land and she thinks the search may soon extend to the sparsely-populated area inland from U.S. 17.

Michael Otelsberg was lucky with his first affordable home project. His company bought land in Navassa that the N.C. Baptist Convention previously bought as a site for affordable homes. The Baptist Convention got a federal subsidy to put in water and sewer lines to the first 25 homes on the site where Otelsberg's firm plans to build 180 homes.

In order for the subsidy to remain valid, the firm had to honor the requirement for some of those first 25 homes to be sold to lower income people. Now, Otelsberg said, while some of the homes in the development may be larger than the 1,100 square feet, $133,000 basic model, most will go to those who need the lower payments to be home owners.

Builders say there are pluses and minuses to affordable home construction. Affordable homes can be built much faster than higher-end, often custom, homes, so the 10 percent to 15 percent profit margin on either can equalize if you're building affordable homes in volume.

Lower income buyers often need extra time for builders to explain the long-term value of home ownership and to help them to find loans, although Gililland said that watching over the details that go into most high-end homes can be time consuming, as well.

But the personal rewards they get from putting lower income people into homes is something special, Otelsberg and Gililland said.

"When you can help them fulfill a dream they thought they'd never be able to have," Gililland said, "I can't tell you how good it feels inside."

And for the buyers, Megan Derr said, buying your own home elevates your dreams from just wanting to be comfortable in a rental to thinking of the home as a stepping stone to an even better future.

"Homeownership is a passion for me," Otelsberg said. "Homeownership is the difference in people getting ahead or people just getting further behind."

For information

To learn more about affordable housing options, call Countywide Community Development Corporation at 910-383-1724.