Customers walking up and down the aisles at a Home Depot in New Orleans, shopping for sinks, appliances, and gallons of paint, can now toss a brand-new house into their shopping carts.

The Home Depot and Homestar Builders–a division of the Lake City, Texas?based factory-built housing manufacturer American Homestar Corp.–are working together to respond to the affordable housing crisis that has been plaguing New Orleans and several other Gulf Coast communities since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

A DEPOT OF NEW HOMES: On March 30, The Home Depot and Homestar Builders kicked off the start of selling Homestar homes at select The Home Depot stores in the Gulf Coast region. Participating in the grand opening "board cutting" are (from left to right) Gary White, Dan Paris, and Steve Chittenden from The Home Depot; Cory Eugene, store manager of the Bullard Avenue The Home Depot; Buck Teeter, American Homestar Corp.; Richard Clarke, The Home Depot; and Scott Ward, Homestar Builders. Photos: Courtesy American Homestar Corp. The partnership, coined the Homestar Homes Program, marks an unprecedented event in The Home Depot's history: It's the first time the company has sold homes at one of its stores. The Home Depot unveiled the program at the end of March at the New Orleans Home & Garden Show in the Louisiana Superdome.

The first model home/sales center is located in the front parking lot of The Home Depot on Interstate 10 Service Road at Bullard Ave., in New Orleans. Customers can tour a model home and pick out everything for the entire house in one day, says Craig Reynolds, CFO for American Homestar. Buyers choose the model size, floor plan, and optional exteriors, and upgrades can be ordered from the adjacent home improvement center.

"The best thing about the program is the customization aspect. The buyer [can customize] beyond his or her dreams, but we will help keep [them] within the budget," says Steve Chittenden, project manager for home services department at The Home Depot. "Everything is rolled up into one price."What's more, the new house can be delivered and ready to move into in less than four months, pending, of course, obtaining permits and financing.

To start, the program offers nine floor plans, ranging in size from 620 square feet to 2,078 square feet with one to four bedrooms. The prices average from $75 to $125 per square foot, depending on the level of customization, including paint colors, flooring, countertops, appliances, cabinets, light fixtures, and more, says a company document.

If home buyers are concerned about theintegrity of a modular home in the Gulf Coast region, they shouldn't be. All Homestar homes are built with the Louisiana and Gulf Coast areas in mind, meeting or exceeding statewide building code standards. Reynolds says that Homestar homes can sustain 140 mph wind loads and this is a "standard feature." The homes also are built in a climate-controlled warehouse in Texas, with third-party inspectors and quality assurance experts monitoring the building process.

Chittenden hopes to move into the northern Gulf Coast area of Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., during the next few months. He has talked to business leaders and government officials in the area. "That's the beauty of the customization of this program, Chittenden says. We can give the Mississippi region what it needs right now."

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–Stephanie Todd

Spring Builders: Habitat/State Farm

TRADING THE SUN FOR SAWS: Volunteers Sam Aguirre (left) of Illinois State University and Megan Hanson (right) of University of Wisconsin-Stout, work at a Collegiate Challenge build hosted by a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Russell County, Alabama. Photo: Courtesy of Habitat For Humanity International/Steffan Hacker Habitat for Humanity International and State Farm announced that the insurance company, as a national partner of the nonprofit home builder's Youth Programs department, has pledged to give more than $1 million to engage youth leadership, strengthen communities through education, and increase youth participation while helping families in need across the United States.

"State Farm has been a partner with Habitat for Humanity for many years. Hundreds of State Farm employees and agents work with their local Habitat for Humanity affiliate so this partnership was a natural extension for that relationship," says Desiree Adaway, director of the Youth Programs department.

The State Farm sponsorship, Adaway explains, will help expand the work of Youth Programs with Habitat affiliates, schools, and young people across the country; increase the number of Habitat homes constructed by Youth Program participants; enrich program curriculum; strengthen the Youth Programs department; and serve as a catalyst to involve community leaders, educators, parents, and youth leaders in the work of the program.

The announcement of the Habitat/State Farm partnership comes at a time when Habitat's Youth Program is gearing up for one of its departmental initiatives: The Collegiate Challenge, a year-round, week-long alternative school break program that provides college and high school students an opportunity to build a house and learn about poverty issues.

The first Collegiate Challenge was held in 1989 and over 1,000 students participated at a Habitat affiliate in Mississippi. This year, more than 11,500 students and 253 Habitat affiliates throughout the United States will participate in the alternative spring break program, according to Adaway.

In the Gulf Coast region, the number of student volunteers continues to flourish. In 2005, 451 students participated in the Collegiate Challenge in the Gulf Coast. The number of volunteers doubled in 2006 to 956 participants. This year, 2,298 students are joining in the rebuilding efforts.

–Stephanie Todd

Raising the Odds: HOPE Awards

It's easy to set a goal to increase homeownership among minorities. However, achieving that goal can require tenacity, creativity, and enterprise. In 2001, six real estate organizations partnered to create the HOPE Awards, a national award given out every other year, to recognize those making these contributions. Let's take a look at the work this year's HOPE Award winners are doing to help raise the homeownership odds among minorities in their communities.

sWilliam Linder of the New Community Corp of Newark, N.J., received the Project of the Year award for teaming up with the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family services to set aside 40 three-bedroom townhomes in Community Hills as affordable housing for minority foster parents. Those who meet income qualifications can buy a townhome for $25,000. The average selling price in the neighborhood is about $50,000.

sThe Education Award went to Pamela Ranslam Schofield of the Umatilla Reservation Housing Authority in Pendleton, Ore., for developing a homeownership program called "Wapayatat," which means to learn or teach in the Umatilla language. The housing authority educates tribal members about savings, budgeting, credit reports, interest rates, and predatory lending.

sBerenice Gomez founded Harvest Home Mortgage in Melville, N.Y., to help Spanish-speaking home buyers overcome language obstacles. She educates both Spanish and English speakers who are intimidated by the home buying process or who have poor credit histories. She was given the Brokerage Award.

sChickie Grayson of Enterprise Homes of Baltimore received the Leadership Award for her successful track record of creating large-scale master plan communities with complicated mixed-income housing developments in both suburban and urban areas in the Mid-Atlantic region. The president and CEO is known for building high-quality developments that include workforce housing.

sMore than 325 of the poorest Colorado families were able to buy homes with the help of the Colorado Housing Assistance Corp. The families, typically earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, were provided with 30-year loans that have a 3 percent fixed interest rate and offered $19,500 in down-payment assistance that they don't have to pay back unless they sell, refinance, or rent their property. Colorado Housing received the Finance Award.

sFather Nguyen of The Vien of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans was honored for advocating the restoration of basic services in the Vietnamese neighborhood. He organized residents and collected 500 signatures to negotiate with utility companies to restore power and water.

The 2007 HOPE Award winners will be honored at a symposium that includes a keynote address given by HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, and on May 15, a dinner hosted at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Each winner receives a $10,000 honorarium.

–Teresa Burney

Learn more about markets featured in this article: New Orleans, LA.