Habitat director plans for growth, education
Jim Farr, the new executive director of the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity, has spent the first few weeks on the job meeting people, getting his head around the most critical current issues, and understanding operations.
"I'm getting my feet wet in a lot of different ways," he said.
Farr looks forward to what he thinks will be a fun part of his job -- working with and among the community, serving as Habitat's "front person," and educating.
He says part of his challenge will be harnessing, integrating and optimizing all the great energy of the staff, board, volunteers and others who help the organization.
With his dad in construction as he grew up, Farr learned a lot, then himself got a job in the industry and worked his way through school.
He became a physician in St. Paul, went into the business side of things, started a company, then ended up working for 3M for 24 years.
Farr says he moved to River Falls about 25 years ago. He's served on the Police and Fire Commission and has coached various youth sports.
During some time off, he'd reflected on how he'd like to get involved with a nonprofit organization. Then a friend told him about the Habitat job.
Farr says about the May-July interview and hiring process, "It was rigorous, I think they did a thorough job."
Education comes with job
Farr expects a big part of his job to be educating all kinds of people about Habitat -- what it is, what it does and how it does it. He plans on transparency, open communication and a consistent message.
Compared to statewide numbers, Farr said Pierce and St. Croix counties have two of the highest foreclosure rates, highlighting the need for affordable housing.
So what's affordable? The director agrees that term is subjective but says Habitat's interest-free mortgages usually cost homeowners between $400-$600 per month including taxes and insurance.
"It's a misconception that these homes are a giveaway," said Farr.
Homeowners must show need, ability to pay and a willingness to partner. This means they must make between 25% and 60% of the median income and must commit to helping build for 300-500 hours, depending on the family.
Farr says the homes' modest sizes, design and energy efficiencies are what make them affordable.
Habitat uses the same few floor plans that can be adapted to a family's needs. For example, a family in New Richmond needs extra garage space and wide doors so that their home is wheelchair accessible.
Homeowners learn about construction and upkeep plus take classes for budgeting and finance. Farr said most partners also end up circling back and serving Habitat, as well as the communities where they live.
The new director says that while the local chapter of Habitat doesn't refurbish existing homes, it may look into that. He's heard of it being done in bigger cities and says if the local affiliate looks into it, it would be in a way that stays within the organization's financial model and efficiency standards.
Farr says an upcoming strategic planning session will help define goals and direction.
Out of that will evolve business, operations, marketing and other plans. He anticipates running the non-profit organization like a business.
He said the Eco Village planned in River Falls -- on Apollo Road south of Maple Street -- is exciting. The multi-unit green-building concept is drawing regional and national attention and may open some non-traditional funding sources.
"It's a good example of how St. Croix Valley Habitat is innovating," he said.
Farr says the new ReStore in New Richmond helps fund homes. He's surprised by how many people think the building and other materials donated to ReStore go only to homeowners. No, he says, the public can also shop the bargains inside.
Farr looks forward to the partnerships and education that will help Habitat grow to meet its demand and emphasizes, "We're all in Humanity together."