It wasn't only the spike in Raleigh teardowns, though the sight of perfectly habitable homes being reduced to rubble helped Nancy Murray settle on a strategy. She already was on a mission to learn all she could about affordable housing and how to build it. Call it audacity, call it a ministry, but Murray—an advertising executive turned builder and social activist—thought she could supply top-drawer, affordable houses in good neighborhoods to working-class families.
Then it clicked: Murray would save the homes imperiled by teardowns and have them moved to a new location. She would upgrade them using the best green techniques while preserving as much of their old wooden bones as possible, then sell the houses at prices high enough to recapture the costs but below their new appraised values.
Such was the genesis—the biblical as well as temporal meaning—of the nonprofit organization Murray created in 2006, Builders of Hope.
Now Builders of Hope is nearly finished with its first project, 24 houses on a cul-de-sac off Barrington Road on the edge of Southeast Raleigh. Barrington Village Lane is so pretty that on first impression, seeing it is disbelieving. The houses look new, and at $100 a square foot or less—about half the asking price for similar houses in the area—they're affordable.
Watching from her front porch while two of her children play in the yard, Dawanna Stanley says believe it. Her house, one of the biggest on the street at 2,700 square feet, had been gutted to the bare walls and floors when she and her husband first saw it. But they also could foresee what it has become: a gracious, five-bedroom home big enough for their blended family of five children. The price: $185,000.
Dawanna and Harry looked in vain for years, first in Maryland and then here, for a house that was large enough, in a safe neighborhood and affordable on their two salaries as sales assistants for Verizon and AT&T, respectively. They'd almost given up when they found this place.
"We love this block," she says. "It's so quiet. The only trouble here is a stray dog."
She relates their history of cramped rentals, bad neighborhoods and house-buying classes. "This is what my husband and I worked so hard for," she declares. "We were blessed to be able to do the right thing and buy this house."
While Stanley talks, workers emerge from the few remaining houses to be finished. Some are at-risk youth from a federally funded job training program, on a three-month assignment with Builders of Hope. Three are men who were homeless, addicted, in prison or all of the above, and who came to work for Builders of Hope through its partner, the Raleigh Rescue Mission. Two men, David Deal and Kenny Bynum, have become leaders on the Builders of Hope crew with their carpentry, painting and tiling skills and strong work ethic. The third, Reginald Parker, is still in the transitional program at the rescue mission and is working full-time as a general laborer.
Builders of Hope, Parker is eager to explain, doesn't just save houses from landfills and money for its buyers. It also saves lives.
At 38, Parker has spent much of his adult life in prison, including a four-year term for running drugs and guns. He was released 17 months ago and now sees his own hopes building. "Builders of Hope is changing people's lives around like we're changing these houses around," he says effusively, "renewing, renewing us—you know what I mean? Renewing our hearts."
To these men, Builders of Hope has become, as Deal and Bynum explain, not only Murray's mission, but theirs as well. "Nancy doesn't ever come and say, 'Look what I've done,'" Deal says. "She goes, 'Look what you guys have done,' because if it had not been for us—this is what she tells us—then Builders of Hope would not be what it is today."
Still, Murray created the organization almost single-handedly and continues to be its spearhead and visionary. She wasn't a novice builder. She got into the business after the death of her father, who dabbled in development after his retirement from IBM. When she returned from a few years in Australia, where her husband, also an IBMer, had been posted, she was looking for a new challenge. She hired a mentor and learned house-building basics from mudding to trim.
Meanwhile, Murray was becoming active in the North Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council, which met in a police department district office. There, she heard how Raleigh cops couldn't afford to buy houses in Raleigh, where the median price of new houses was upward of $220,000. For two-thirds of the local labor force, she says, well-built houses in safe neighborhoods were out of reach, leaving them to choose between living in apartment complexes and commuting. "Nobody was building houses for the working class," she says.
After Murray hit on the idea of rehabbing salvaged houses, it took her a year to convince Raleigh officials that she could put them all on a single, newly constructed cul-de-sac without violating city code. Finally, the city approved her project, and Barrington Village took off—under the wire of the current housing collapse.
The houses on Barrington Village Lane arrived in varying conditions ranging "from very good to pretty rough," says Mike Dasher, Builders of Hope's construction manager. Several in the former category were donated by developer John Kane, who had them removed from the site of his mushrooming North Hills East project in Raleigh. Others came one at a time from other developers or homeowners.
Donors are spared the cost of demolition and removal—which averages about $10,000 a house—and can also claim a federal and state tax deduction for the value of their donations since Builders of Hope is a nonprofit.
Barrington Village Lane has the feel of a new development built in the original Craftsman style. Some of the houses were turned 90 degrees so that a former entry door on a side wall now faces the street. (Old houses sometimes didn't have a front door, Dasher explains.) One house was cut in half and each of its two floors was deployed—with additions—as part of a new three-bedroom home. Every house was given a new front porch and landscaping.
Dasher is standing in a building that arrived in rough shape. He thinks it was once a barn, but now it's a solid, 680-square-foot home. It needed to be gutted, but the exterior framing and central bearing wall were preserved, and the heart pine floor was restored.
Even when a house arrives in good shape, Dasher says, Builders of Hope installs new wiring, plumbing, HVAC systems and foundations. All the houses are fitted with new energy-efficient doors and windows, extra insulation (well above what the building code requires) in the walls and attic, low-flow toilets and Energy Star-rated appliances. Proper exterior ventilation helps eliminate airborne allergens and pollutants.
Four of the Barrington Village homes were included in a pilot project with Advanced Energy Corporation. A nonprofit spinoff of the utility companies, including Progress Energy and Duke Energy, Advanced Energy's System Vision program is offered for affordable housing, with help from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency. It provides incentives to builders of up to $4,000 per house for installing smart mechanical systems that control indoor air quality and humidity levels.
Before certifying a house, Advanced Energy seals it, pressurizes it and then runs a blower in the front-door space to detect where and how much air escapes through the walls and windows. For the houses Advanced Energy certifies, it guarantees average heating and cooling costs will run between $16 and $40 a month, depending on size, for at least two years, or the corporation will pay the overage.
On its next major project, a cul-de-sac development on State Street, adjacent to one of Southeast Raleigh's poorest neighborhoods, all 25 houses will be rebuilt to meet System Vision standards, Dasher says.
They'll also be nominated for certification as "North Carolina HealthyBuilt Homes" by the N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University. Certified houses must be moisture- and mold-free, recapture rainwater for lawn irrigation, and use low-toxicity paints, finishes and building materials.
Some of these amenities will be a step up from Barrington Village, Dasher says, but even so, every house there should be considered "pretty darned green" for its having been spared the landfill and recycled.
"When you crawl under this house," he says, pointing to the pine floor, "and you think about all the trees that these old floor joists were cut out of, and all the new trees that would have to be cut for the studs and the rafters [if the house hadn't been saved], it's pretty amazing—and you wouldn't still have this great floor."
Dasher came to Builders of Hope after eight years with Habitat for Humanity and a couple of years on his own doing design-build work. Of Murray's vision, he says, "You can't hear it and not be intrigued.
"It's just amazing to see the guys we've hired on, and what a difference it's made for them—and what a difference it's made for us on the construction site," he goes on. "It's absolutely amazing to be part of that."
Kenny Bynum is covered with dust. He's the lead tile man for Builders of Hope. Asked where he's coming from, he hears a different question.
"I'm polishing things up," he says, "changing my life from one not so acceptable to one that hopefully is now. Coming out here, I learned how to live, keep an open mind, listen to Mike [Dasher] and the other contractors who know how to do things right, and return to doing things that are positive and productive for myself."
He means that kind of coming-from.
Bynum shares some of his personal history: his former addiction, repeated stays at the Raleigh Rescue Mission, meeting Nancy Murray when she came there, and a renaissance that's brought him to a job he loves and an apartment of his own.
With Builders of Hope, he's finally conquered his demons. He plans to make a career in construction and hopes to buy a home before long—likely one he's helped build.
"I'm learning how to build a house from the ground up to the roof," he says. "Most of all, I've learned there are good things [in life] and people I can trust."
Reginald Parker has similar feelings but different goals. When he completes the program at the rescue mission, he'd like to work again as a truck driver—a job he enjoyed. He, too, wants to own a house, mainly so he can be reunited with his daughter, who lives with her mother in Connecticut. He feels no need to build it himself.
What he's learned working alongside Bynum and the rest of the crew, Parker says, is "that it's not about the work all the time, it's about relating to people."
"I've not ever been in a setting like this in my life," Parker confides. "I didn't really care nothin' about people, it was all about me. Now it's like—I gotta help somebody." Lifting his sunglasses, he swipes a hand quickly across his eyes. "It teaches us about love. We minister each other."
So Parker tries to share his hard-earned experience with the young people in the YouthBuild program, another Builders of Hope partner. They're generally teens considered at-risk but who are getting another chance.
One, Damien Stone, just turned 20. He's bright, quietly ambitious—for his art, music and writing—and he counts himself lucky that he got caught, "before anybody got hurt," when he and a buddy attempted an armed robbery at a pizzeria.
The conviction landed him in Wake County jail, where he heard about YouthBuild and Builders for Hope. They've helped him change his life around, he says: "If it weren't for this, I don't know where I'd be."
As he scrapes old paint off an interior wall in one of the last unfinished houses on the block, Stone can see an example in the next room of someone who's made a plan and followed it.
Little more than a year ago, David Deal, 36, was addicted to drugs and booze, he says, so much so that his fiancée—the woman he's been with for nine years and the mother of his daughter—left him. That's when he made his plan to try to get them back, or failing that, to save himself. He went to the Raleigh Rescue Mission for help.
During the 15 months he lived there, he met Nancy Murray, who had come to invite residents—if and when they were ready—to earn some money at Barrington Village.
Deal walks down the street to the new old house he owns: a sparkling three-bedroom, 1,250-square-foot home he bought for $129,000. He helped to design it after it arrived on the lot and did most of the restoration work himself.
An experienced carpenter, painter and jack of all trades, Deal went from addict to Builders of Hope crew leader in months—during which time he's also been reunited with his family.
Deal says the YouthBuild crews remind him of himself when he was a teenager, when a job was just a way to earn money and have fun. But this job, he tells them, is different. He recalls a woman who bought one of the smallest houses on the street, "but it was huge to her" because she'd always lived in public housing. When she moved in, Deal says, she mistook a closet for one of the bedrooms.
"We're doing something here for a community of families that have never had anything," he tells the teens. "And we're putting it together for them."
Nancy Murray set out to show that affordable housing could be accomplished without government subsidies, but she's since moderated her view. One of the remaining two houses in Barrington Village, for example, is being marketed at a price of $98,000, but a "soft second" mortgage of up to $25,000 is available through the N.C. Housing Finance Agency to first-time buyers with an income less than 80 percent of the average median income in Raleigh. (That equals about $57,000 for a family of four). The second mortgage isn't due unless and until the house is sold, so the initial purchase price could be as low as $73,000.
Builders of Hope has taken on some government-subsidized housing rehabilitation in Durham, is working on projects in Chapel Hill, and hopes to work on one in the center of Cary, Murray says.
In Raleigh, the next big project is State Street, located on city-donated land. Qualified buyers will be eligible for government subsidies. The land is being graded and the first house—spared from the wrecking ball that recently brought down a small office building next to the 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh—has been delivered to the site. Three other homes have been donated and are awaiting delivery. Murray is always scouting for more.
So far, Murray emphasizes, every home that Builders of Hope has restored and sold has been purchased by someone of modest means at a price well below its appraised value. She calls the difference "a gift of equity that will be a nest egg for their futures."
While Murray doesn't prosyletize her Christian beliefs, neither does she hide them. She calls her work a ministry, and until this year, took no salary for herself. She now earns $65,000 a year, "well below the bar" for chief executive officers of comparable nonprofits, she says.
To her fellow members of Raleigh's Providence Baptist Church, Murray once said that Builders of Hope is about "taking something that has been cast aside by society and taking it through an incredible transformation to serve a higher purpose."