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Governor Hopes Home Building Idea Spreads

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Nail gun in hand, Gov. Jennifer Granholm was determined to install baseboards in the wood frame house on Detroit’s east side. Outside, husband Dan Mulhern wiped away sweat while putting up vinyl siding in stifling 90-degree heat.

With tens of thousands of Michigan families losing homes to foreclosure during the nation’s mortgage swoon and economic collapse, Michigan’s first family hopes a unique reunion idea with Habitat for Humanity catches on across the state.

About 45 members of Mulhern’s family – many with ties to Detroit – have volunteered a few weeks this summer to build a home on Maryland Street.

Granholm, unable to seek re-election due to term limits, is filling out the final months of her second term. She and Mulhern are counting on their cheer-leading to get volunteers to do what a state without money can’t – assist struggling families who have lost so much.

“You can either sit back and complain, or you can contribute to the solution,” the Democratic governor said Thursday morning outside the nearly complete 4-bedroom house.

“Across the state there are communities that have the same pull for other families. In tough times, citizens in Michigan know how to rally. This is a rally moment, an opportunity.”

Habitat for Humanity expects to build about 20 new houses in Detroit this year, and 200 across the state. Mulhern’s family learned about the build on Maryland and jumped at the chance to help.

“We were just tired of the whining and the finger-pointing and the ‘poor, pitiful us,'” he said, referring to complaints across Michigan. “We wanted to make a difference.”

The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity has built 3,000 homes in Michigan since 1982, and 457 since the start of 2008. The new homeowners are required to put in “sweat equity” and help volunteers in the building process.

Its Habitat for Humanity Michigan Fund provides mortgages for independently-run member offices across the state at a reasonable monthly fee, spokeswoman Debra Lashbrook said.

The fund is servicing 1,059 home loans with a value of approximately $46 million.

“We’re one of maybe a handful of homebuilders still operating in Michigan,” said Vincent Tilford, Habitat’s executive director in Detroit. “We’re still able to serve very low and low-income families that might not otherwise get served in a market where bank credit has dried up significantly.”

As of May, Michigan’s 13.6 percent unemployment rate was near the top in the nation. Last year, 285,600 jobs disappeared.

“What you have are families who may have been lower-middle income or middle income,” Tilford said. “They’ve lost jobs. They’ve taken jobs that pay less and have now fallen down into the ranks of the low income and they’re losing homes, or they may have been renting someplace and they got kicked out because the landlord did not pay their mortgage.”

Since Jan. 1, there have been about 94,800 new foreclosure filings in Michigan, according to RealtyTrac. There were more than 20,000 in May.

There are some bright spots for a few. The state expects on Monday to begin distributing $154.5 million in federal money aimed at helping more than 17,000 Michigan homeowners avoid foreclosure. About 11,000 of those homeowners are drawing unemployment benefits.

It could take up to 18 months to distribute all the cash, which is part of a $1.5 billion investment for Michigan, Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada: states hit hardest by the mortgage crisis.

The Michigan Association of Homebuilders also expects permits to build single-family homes will be up 35 percent through October compared to a year ago.

Habitat for Humanity is responsible for 70 new homes on Maryland and surrounding streets over the past few years.

The 1,200-square-foot house Granholm, Mulhern and his family are helping to build will be Kenyatta Lewis’ first home. The 34-year-old U.S. Census survey clerk now lives with her father in Southfield after moving back to Michigan from Arkansas.

“I’ve had to do 250 sweat hours” as part of Habitat’s program, Lewis said. “We’ve worked on about eight different homes. I’ve done siding. I’ve started framing. I’ve done painting. I’ve even helped with some roofing.”

People accepted into the program also take repair and financial literacy classes, “so we’re able to create a budget, and make our payments and take care of the home,” said Lewis, who expects to move into the home in August or September.

Mulhern, whose immediate family was raised on Detroit’s east side, said their original plan was to join the rebuilding effort in Hurricane Katrina-devastated New Orleans.

“I thought ‘we got so much going on here, why go to New Orleans?'” he said. “We had so much love for the city of Detroit. All of my cousins had such great memories.”

The family also has raised about $15,000 in donations for Habitat for Humanity, said Christine Bitonti, Mulhern’s cousin and coordinator of MI Family Builds.

“It’s such a feel-good program. People get back more than they give,” Bitonti said. “You’re going to know that you didn’t stand around complaining about Michigan and the economy. You got out there and you did something really great. You started getting other people to move.”

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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