Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Denise James, executive director of Rogue Valley Habitat for Humanity.
Q: Habitat for Humanity has a mission that families should have a decent and affordable place to live. How has Rogue Valley Habitat met that mission?
James: Our program is for people who are living in substandard conditions, really have a need for affordable housing, and are willing to partner with us. It’s a hand-up opportunity. We are busy in the community looking for families, businesses and companies to partner with. We partner with the selected applicants to help build their home, and they become invested in the process. We then sell the house to the selected applicant and we carry the loan with affordable monthly payments. So, it takes a community. It’s not just us doing it by ourselves, but we take the lead.
Q: Tell us about the project where you rehabilitate houses that have been condemned.
James: We’ve bought and purchased houses that were foreclosed and abandoned. These may be more than just a simple decent home. These are typically bigger, they’re usually older and can have a lot more problems. It’s been challenging for our volunteers to be able to figure out how to tackle some of those homes. Sometimes those homes are really more trouble than they are worth, so we steer clear of them, unless the offers are so great we can’t turn down, which means free. And then we may have to take a house down to the studs and rebuild it. Some houses haven’t needed that much work, we’ve just done a bit of drywall fix-up before we match them with a family.
Q: So you are providing a house for a family and helping the community eliminate blighted properties?
James: We’ve been working with the city of Medford to try and eliminate blight, which decreases the value in neighborhoods, and can become a gathering place for homeless people or criminals. The need for affordable housing in our area is so big, this is a great opportunity to provide affordable housing.
Q: How does the ReStore fit in?
James: The ReStore provides materials to do-it-yourselfers at a lower cost. We use the income to pay for all the administrative costs of our organization. So every dollar that is donated to us is being using to build affordable homes. The ReStore has used building materials which can be purchased at a lesser price for their own project. Everything is open to the public, so we take donated materials for home improvement and resell them at about 50 percent of value to public. At times, there is material that we may use in our own construction projects.
Q: If you had the resources, what project could have a bigger impact on the housing issue?
James: I would like to purchase one of the older mobile home parks and rebuild it with small, affordable homes. Some of those trailers are in horrible condition. They age and deteriorate rapidly. People don’t want to fix them. There’s not an agency in town that’s helping fix old trailers. They’re expensive and they’re just a horrible situation for people to live in. In addition, some trailer parks in town are an environment for crime. It’s the only place that people can afford at times. Many of our applicants for our homes come from trailer parks. I’d love to see an opportunity where we could partner with Rogue Retreats and develop a graduated system to pull out the trailers, use those spaces for a tiny house for shelter first, and gradually move up to a small house that can be purchased. This builds ownership and equity. Another project would be to rebuild our ReStore to be more efficient and therefore have more impact in our community.
Q: What can we do as a community about the homeless issue?
James: Homelessness is not our mission, but I’ve worked with Chad McClure at Rogue Retreats and try to support the work he’s doing. I think there are three levels of homelessness: people who are there through no fault of their own; people with mental health issues who can’t get medications or treatment; and then people who choose to survive off a life of crime. The crime rate and the inability to really do much about it is having a very serious effect on our community. Our program really provides support for those who have worked hard for homeownership.
Q: How did you get to be director of Habitat in Southern Oregon?
James: It was by accident actually. I have a banking and business background. I spent many years at U.S. Bank. My husband was a contractor, so I knew a lot about business and contracting. He was actually a volunteer for Habitat. I ran the administrative side of our construction business after I was displaced when the bank was purchased. It was perfect timing; my children were in junior high and high school, and I stayed home and helped with the business. And when my youngest son was in high school, I was ready to look for part-time work and found that at Habitat. Within a few years the executive director left, and I was able to step into her position. I’ve lived in Southern Oregon for more than 30 years.
Q: Why do you like working at Habitat?
James: Building homes is a long process, and some days you’re frustrated with the building department, some days you’re frustrated with the builders and then you’re frustrated with the staffing. I’m human resources, I’m administration, I’m business manager, I’m all those things. And you say, “why do I keep doing this?” Then you get to that point when you’re meeting the family and kids who are getting a home. It’s a big celebration, and the kids are waiting for their bedroom. I’ve been here long enough now to see the children who have grown up in those homes and see what a difference it makes. That’s why I’m here. Each home revitalizes your belief in the mission, and then you’re ready to build another house.
Q: Who gives you inspiration?
James: I have some board members who provide some of that inspiration. I also am part of a larger piece, I’m involved with the state of Oregon and have some mentors at the statewide Habitat program. I feel I have a huge network of people who provide that inspiration. The local partnerships and relationships I’ve developed often keep me inspired, as well.
I’ve been involved in Habitat at the international level. I’ve gone on some global village trips overseas. My first international build was in Thailand with Jimmy Carter. I remember working with him, having lunch with him and attending church with him. He is an inspiration.
We have a wonderful staff and we provide that support and motivation to each other. Sometimes people come to us with such serious needs, we always remind each other that we are here to help people, and how can we do that within our mission and program? Inspiration for me is a combination of willing volunteers, community partners and staff.
Q: You have an upcoming trip to Vietnam?
James: Habitat International, the parent company headquartered in Georgia, builds homes in 60 countries. The building trip to Vietnam is called a Global Village Trip. There are about 200 people from around the world joining together to build 25 houses in a week. We are going to be in Vietnam for 10 days to build, and then a few of us will spend a couple of days touring Vietnam. I’ve participated in Global Village Trips in El Salvador, Cambodia and Thailand. These trips recharge my batteries.
Q: What gives you hope about the housing issue?
James: We’re never going to solve the problem. I was a presenter at a landlord association meeting years ago and I asked, “why do you all allow such slum housing to happen? Why do you allow people to live this way?” Their answer was, “because there’s a market for it. There are people who don’t take care of their homes and they don’t pay their bills, and we’re always having to repair what they break. There’s nowhere else for them to live.”
I was surprised by what they said, but perhaps not everybody is going to be a homeowner.
The founder of Habitat International set as a goal to eliminate substandard housing conditions in the world and everyone would have a decent place to live. And it’s probably never going to happen. We’ve seen that here, we select someone who is living in a substandard situation and provide housing for them. And then somebody else immediately moves right into where they have been living. I feel like it’s a problem we’re never going to solve. But if we can have a positive impact on one family, then we have made a difference, and that change has a ripple effect throughout the entire community. We are buying homes within our own community, and the people who move into our homes are going to stay in their jobs longer, and their kids are going to go to college and they’re going to become homeowners themselves. By multiplying that over and over, we have an ability to make a huge impact.
Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.
Denise James bio
Denise James, a native Oregonian, has been with Habitat for Humanity since 2001, and the executive director since 2006. She studied business at RCC and SOU, has past experience in banking with US Bank, and has been a business owner of a family construction company.
James is on the board of Affordable Housing Solutions, a member of Medford’s Housing and Community Development Commission, and the Medford Police Advisory Commission. She recently completed two terms as a member of the board for Habitat of Oregon, a statewide support agency, and sits on a statewide affiliate support and mentorship committee to assist the 30 Habitat for Humanity affiliates within the state.
As executive director, James has overseen the construction of 44 Habitat homes, providing decent, affordable housing to more than 200 people. In addition, James builds houses internationally with Habitat for Humanity, including El Salvador, and three countries in Asia.
James lives in Medford with her husband, has three grown children and 10 grandchildren, all of whom live in Medford. She is an avid baseball fan and serves in all board functions for youth sports, as well as previous member of the Medford Youth Baseball Society.