FORT PIERCE — St. Lucie Habitat for Humanity is launching a Veteran Housing Program to help lower-income military veterans living in St. Lucie County buy some of the county's bargain-priced houses.
The organization's first focus will be veterans 55 and older.
That's because the biggest bargains are condominiums in 55-and-older communities, said Garrett Grabowski, executive director for St. Lucie Habitat for Humanity and its Veteran Housing Program.
Grabowski has found condos priced from $10,000 to just under $20,000. He's careful to check that association annual fees are reasonable, so that the total of monthly mortgage payment and fees will be in the $500 to $600 range.
Like Habitat, the Veteran Housing Program provides a mortgage with no interest that can stretch over as many as 30 years.
"Some of these condos are really nice, and using our regular volunteer labor, we can fix them up at a very reasonable cost," Grabowski said.
The Veteran Housing Program is geared to help honorably discharged veterans with financial difficulties or substandard housing move to better, more affordable housing, said Scott Anderson, a branch manager for SunTrust Bank in Fort Pierce and St. Lucie Habitat Board member who does fundraising for the new venture.
"If they can manage money well enough to make the monthly payments, we will work with them," he said. "They will have to meet the income requirements.
"Garrett and I kept seeing all these news reports about veterans living in poor conditions, after all they have done for our country, and we said, 'Let's do it another way,'" Anderson said.
The Veteran Housing Program has a $15,000 startup loan from St. Lucie Habitat's general fund to purchase its first few properties and will depend on community fundraising to sponsor any costs that each lower-income veteran cannot cover themselves, Grabowski said.
"We think we can get the community behind us," he said. "It's easier to rally behind someone when you know who you are helping."
Anderson and Grabowski came up with the idea this summer and began the program in the last few weeks. So far it has three applicants — two older vets and a younger one with a family.
The Veteran Housing Program will not make veterans meet some of the usual Habitat requirements, like providing sweat equity — physical labor — to build their own and others' homes.
"We are serving World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. We are serving those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our feeling was, if they sweated for our military, they didn't have to do it for us," Anderson said.
To have separate requirements, Habitat established a separate nonprofit corporate entity to oversee the veterans program, the St. Lucie Community Housing Development Organization. It has the same address and phone as St. Lucie Habitat, and the same executive director, Grabowski said.
Decent, affordable housing is an issue for some veterans of all ages in St. Lucie County, said Donna Carlsen, Veterans Services Coordinator for St. Lucie County. She has invited Anderson and Grabowski to speak to a meeting of the United Veterans of St. Lucie County, where more than 35 separate vets groups gather to share ideas. The specific date has not been set.
The Veteran Housing Program also will serve younger veterans, who might be able to use their military benefits to help pay for the housing, Anderson said.
Veterans with families can purchase a new three-bedroom, two-bath site-built home built by Habitat volunteers and professionals working through the Veteran Housing Program, Anderson said.
"With the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ending, and those soldiers about to return home, we want to be ready for them," Grabowski said. "And with older veterans living here, we want to make sure they are living in good conditions."
TO APPLY FOR A HOME
Here's a look at how U.S. military veterans can get a home under this program:
At least one year St. Lucie County residency
Meet lower income guidelines
Be able to make regular monthly payments
Be honorably discharged
Online: www.vhpslc.com/application informationTO HELP VETERANS
If you or your group want to volunteer to rehab condos or build homes through the Veteran Housing Program, call St. Lucie Habitat for Humanity at 772-464-1117.
Donations to the Veteran Housing Program can be made payable to "St. Lucie Habitat for Humanity CDHO, Inc." It is a 501C3 charitable organization and the donations are tax-deductible.