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The helping hand these days often holds a new house

House-gifting has become a major philanthropic trend in the US, in part fueled by reality TV shows.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2008

Charity: Siding goes up on Edward Parker's custom-designed and free home in East Biloxi, Miss. Giving people homes as gifts is a rising phenomenon across the US.

Kristen Zeiber/Gulf Coast Community Design Studio

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After the big unveiling of her new house in Goffstown, N.H., a funny thought kept popping into Kelly Herod's head: "There's no food here to feed the kids."

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Going from squalid house, or even no house, to the mansion of one's dreams is an increasingly common, and often disorienting, experience for disaster-stricken American families such as the Herods. Their home washed away last Memorial Day when the Piscataquog River left its banks. "I thought, 'I can't believe these people are going to build a house for nothing,' " says Ms. Herod.

As big storms have exposed gaps in federal assistance for housing, house-gifting – a modern take on barn raising – has become a major philanthropic trend in the US, experts say. Home-focused reality TV shows have helped fuel the trend and give it more visibility. Faith-based groups are among those picking up the hammers and making other key contributions.

In the past few years, more than a thousand families have received essentially free homes from New Hampshire to Mississippi.

"We used to give people money toward college. Now, we give them a house," says Dana Heller, a humanities professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and author of "The Great American Transformation."

It's tough to nail down statistics on house-gifting, but housing experts see the movement gaining momentum, especially in light of the subprime-mortgage crisis. In addition, the number of working families who have critical housing needs is some 5.2 million today – an increase of 73 percent from 1997, according to the National Housing Conference. (Critical needs are defined as dilapidated conditions or when more than half of income goes toward housing.)

Though Habitat for Humanity requires homeowners to take out a mortgage, the organization has experienced the same kind of growth as in the gifted sector, experts say. Habitat has built 32,305 homes in the United States since 2001, more than doubling its building pace.

"While the federal government has been pretty static in its response [to housing needs], the willingness to do something at the local level seems to be growing," says Conrad Egan, president of the National Housing Conference, which advocates affordable housing. "In some ways, it's not surprising that churches and neighborhood groups are trying to figure out ways to respond to particular situations."

From foundation to finish, houses are going up – sometimes in a day. A faith-based effort in East Biloxi, Miss., has built 650 homes for people who didn't qualify for the state's rebuilding program. Last Wednesday, officials cut the ribbon on six new and free homes in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Dozens of homes have been gifted in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Although volunteer groups have tried to centralize relief in the Gulf Coast, project managers there say they often hear of "guerrilla builders" quietly hammering up a house and slinking away without fanfare.