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Spokane group turns to renovating "zombie" houses to help low-income families

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Doug Nadvornick/SPR
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High real estate prices are a big obstacle for organizations that provide housing for people of low incomes.

“Couple of years ago, we were able to acquire a four-bedroom, two-bathroom rehab acquisition home for under $150,000. Today it’s double that," said. Michelle Girardot, the executive director of the Spokane chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which has had to get creative to find land and homes it can turn into affordable housing for families.On Friday, Habitat handed the keys to a newly-renovated home in the West Central neighborhood to a refugee family working to make a new life in a new city.

“Good morning everyone and welcome to our Home for the Holidays home dedication celebration from Farah and his family," Girardot said at the beginning of a celebratory neighborhood event.

Habitat often builds houses from scratch, using labor provided by volunteers and materials donated by local sources. She says her organization is also looking for opportunities to renovate older structures, including those known as “zombie” houses.

“Homes that have been abandoned or foreclosed on and have been sitting vacant for a period of time that has led to either criminal activity, safety hazards, and generally poses a risk to not only the surrounding homes in terms of crime or feeling safe in your neighborhood, but it also reduces property values," she said.

Girardot says Habitat and the city of Spokane are working together to identify houses that can be fixed up and given new lives. It’s the Derelict Housing Acquisition and Homeownership program. She says the home handed over on Friday is the first acquired through that program.

You’d think that buying homes that are trashed and of no use to anyone else might be inexpensive to buy and renovate. Yes, Girardot says, there are advantages.

“The zombie homes that we’re now transforming to these beautiful, safe, affordable homes, you know, the lumber was already there. They’re already framed. They just needed to have the updating and the rehab work so they would be livable again and energy efficient, of course," she said.

But she says there are hidden costs in these homes too.

“They’re connected to a number of liens or they’re stuck in probate somewhere or there’s just a lot of, legal issues that are tied to a title of the units," Girardot said.

Fortunately, she says, Habitat and other organizations that transform homes have developed the infrastructure they need to untangle the legal and financial strings.

Girardot says zombie houses in the West Central and Hillyard neighborhoods have also been purchased and are waiting for renovation.