Habitat for Humanity Homeowner Policy Questioned

Updated: 05/22/2013 8:02 AM KSTP.com By: Beth McDonough

A popular program that provides homes for those who need it most is under scrutiny because of how it decides who gets a house.

Habitat for Humanity has helped 900 low-income Minnesotans become homeowners. 

Paul Garay Sr. recently got the word that he's been approved -- and it's causing controversy. Garay doesn't just have a history of DUI's, he has a lifetime of them. With 20 DUI arrests, he's Minnesota's most infamous drunk driver.

Garay talks openly of redemption and recovery and says he's been sober for four years now. He insists there's more to him than meets the eye, and that's what caught the attention of Habitat for Humanity. 

Habitat embarked on a new campaign, making affordable housing available to eligible veterans. "We've decided to serve those who have served," Kristin Beckmann with Habitat for Humanity says.

Garay served in the army during Vietnam. He applied for a Habitat home like everybody else and went on the waiting list.

Two months ago he got the word that he'll get a home with an interest-free mortgage in Cottage Grove. He was thrilled. "I think they chose to focus on that I was a veteran, that I did a lot of change in my life and I was headed for a positive future," he said.

Habitat confirms it's building 55 homes this year and there's a waiting list 156 people long. The block of homes under construction west of Highway 61 is being built, in part, with taxpayer dollars from federal funds.

Longtime residents welcome the project, just not a career criminal next door. "It seems really wrong; it's just not humane to put somebody in this area with that many DUIs," Cynthia McElmury of Cottage Grove said.

She wonders how Garay was chosen over other law-abiding citizens.

Because Habitat is a bank and owns the mortgage, it follows fair housing lending laws. That includes verifying employment, income-to-debt ratio and a limited background check to make sure candidates aren't terrorists or sex offenders. 

Once we shared neighbors' concerns about Habitat's screening policy, it withdrew the offer to sell Garay a home in Cottage Grove. The agency had a change of heart, but not a change in policy.

Garay's name goes back in the pool, bound for a different home, in a different town, at a different time. "I was disappointed and hurt, but I understand it, some people don't forget and they don't forgive," he said.

In Minnesota, one in 17 drivers has two or more DUI arrests, according to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Habitat has sold one home to a veteran. Garay would've been the second. A third veteran has recently been chosen.