RED WING -- When the Goodhue County Habitat for Humanity won Nonprofit Organization of the Year honors from the Red Wing Chamber of Commerce, it had an extra meaning for John Parkes, who was stepping down as executive director after five and a half years.

“I took it very personally given that I was leaving,” Parkes said. “It’s a great recognition of the work we have done. I also believe that it points to a higher awareness of affordable housing as a crisis in Red Wing and Goodhue County.”

Parkes added that the award is important because Habitat for Humanity works with a limited staff.

“We are one full-time person and four part-time people. That’s all we have,” he said. “We do manage to leverage that with all the volunteers.”

In 2019, the local Habitat for Humanity had almost 200 volunteers who donated more than 6,300 hours to projects in Red Wing, Cannon Falls and Lake City. They finished three new homes and several major repair projects, including roofing and siding, for people who qualified.

“In most cases they are seniors or people with disabilities that can’t do it themselves,” Parkes said, regarding the repair projects. “When it comes to roofs, if those roofs are not replaced, those people are not going to be able to stay there.”

While there are companies that build low-income rentals in Goodhue County, Habitat for Humanity is the only organization that builds low-income, single-family homes, according to Parkes. Habitat’s approach is unique, using what Parkes called “an upside-down pyramid scheme.”

“In 1993, we built a home for somebody,” he said. “That was our first home, and we said you can have 30 years to pay us back. Somehow the next year, there was enough money to build another home and somewhere down the road we built two homes. Now we have built 40 homes. The first one just paid back maybe five years ago. It is a model that in the business world would get thumbs down in a heartbeat. But we make it work.”

One common myth is that Habitat for Humanity gives away homes. Parkes said that is not the case, but that Habitat for Humanity does work with applicants to make the mortgage affordable.

“We have to sell the house at appraised value,” Parkes said. “We create a mortgage at what we calculate they can afford, which is 26% of their income. If there is a gap between the value and what they can afford, that gap is funded by getting grants from different organizations. Whatever doesn’t get grant money, we fund. We will hold the mortgage that you don’t have to pay, unless you sell your house. We don’t allow flipping. That is the way we keep the home affordable.”

Parkes left the executive director’s position on Feb. 6, and was replaced by Stacy Larson, who was born in Red Wing and raised in Cannon Falls. She has a background in corporate management, and said she is excited to work for Habitat for Humanity.

“I want to help these communities that I have lived in, grown up in,” Larson said. “It feels good to be doing something that makes a huge difference. I am very excited about our future. I am excited that John is not going very far. He will be our construction adviser.”

Parkes said he and the Goodhue County Habitat for Humanity group are “grateful for the recognition, but we are also hopeful that the businesses of Red Wing will step up financially because the cost of construction gets higher every year. The appraisals are getting higher. The businesses in Red Wing need our help. They need a place for their workers to live.”