The working poor - folks who want to own a home and achieve the American dream but can't qualify for traditional mortgages - are losing a friend.

Paul Johnson, 67, executive director of Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, last week announced he plans to retire in July after 17 years leading the nonprofit Christian ministry dedicated to eliminating poverty through home ownership.

A search is underway for his successor and I'm not sure I'd want to follow Johnson, given all he did during his tenure.

Under Johnson's leadership, Habitat has been transformed from an all-volunteer group that built a couple houses a year on a budget of less than $100,000 a year.

Today, it builds upwards of 10 houses a year with a staff of 19 and a budget exceeding $1 million.

In fact, Habitat does much more than create affordable housing. Under Johnson's leadership, the agency has created entire neighborhoods and it has created jobs.

In addition, it has tried to change the public's perception of affordable housing by building homes that have been displayed in the annual Parade of Homes.

As Habitat's first paid executive, Johnson partnered with businesses, churches and other groups across the region, raised millions to buy land and materials and even turned Habitat "green" as a leader in the recycling of building materials with its ReStore shop opened in 2004 to provide money to help build new houses. So far, ReStore proceeds have funded 31 houses, Johnson said.

"Paul's done an amazing job," said Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, the umbrella group for the city's neighborhoods.

Munger got to know Johnson as a volunteer on Habitat projects and as leaders in the community.

"Paul is creative and ambitious in a great way," Munger said. "He did more than just build houses. He was creating communities."

Munger was referring to the work Habitat did, beginning around 1999, in the Mill Street neighborhood south of downtown Colorado Springs where Habitat built 17 homes on 1.5 acres, helping trigger a renaissance in the blue-collar region near the Martin Drake Power Plant.

"He did a great job down here," said JoAnne Ziegler, an 18-year Mill Street resident. "If Habitat hadn't come in, I don't know what would have happened. When they started building houses, I think it encouraged others to improve their properties and start taking better care of their homes."

Johnson's boldest move came in 2004 when he partnered with another affordable housing agency, the Rocky Mountain Community Land Trust, to create the Woodmen Vistas subdivision near Powers Boulevard and Woodmen Road.

The two agencies bought 10 acres and developed 68 homes, sharing expenses and resources to lower costs.

"We were able to do things together we wouldn't have been able to do on our own," said Bob Koenig, who retired as executive director of the land trust in 2012. "He believes in collaboration. Working together we achieved significant savings. As a result, we were able to significantly increase the number of houses we were doing."

Koenig's successor, Nate Clyncke, attributes Johnson's success to his lack of ego.

"Paul's priority is serving the community and providing low-income housing and he doesn't bring an attitude or ego into the transaction," Clyncke said. "Paul is a humble and unassuming person that works to improve our community over any personal achievement."

Johnson came to the region in 1996 when his wife was transferred from her job in the San Francisco Bay Area. At age 50, he quit his job as a career hospital administrator and followed her here.

Unable to find work in the hospital industry, Johnson took his pastor's advice and applied for the new Habitat executive position.

"I didn't know what a roof truss was when I started," Johnson laughed. "And I had never volunteered with Habitat."

But he knew how to raise money from his hospital career. And he knew fundraising would be the key to transforming the local Habitat, which started in 1986 - 10 years after the Habitat for Humanity International ministry was founded in Americus, Ga. Homes are built and sold to families in need at no profit and no interest.

In 1997, the local chapter had built just 25 homes in 11 years.

"Since then, we've dedicated another 100," Johnson said, noting that as Woodmen Vistas nears completion of its last four houses, construction is well underway on the new Country Living subdivision in Fountain where 34 homes are planned.

And, as with every Habitat home, each will be filled with a family who invested their own time and energy, as well as a significant down payment, in their new home. Sweat equity is demanded of every Habitat homeowner, along with classes in home ownership, credit counseling, debt consolidation or any other classes Habitat deems helpful to its prospective family owners.

In exchange, they get no-interest, 30-year mortgages and modest and clean, safe homes.

Habitat targets folks who earn between 25 percent and 50 percent of the median income for a family of four based on federal poverty guidelines. That translates to about $17,400 up to $35,700.

"We try to keep their payments to around $500 a month," Johnson said.

Johnson said he's enjoyed his 17 years and especially enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that accompanied the ceremonies celebrating completion of each house and occupancy by new owners.

"I'm going to miss seeing the completion of the houses," he said.

Munger said Colorado Springs is going to miss Johnson.

"He has left a great legacy for his successor," Munger said. "We owe him a lot."


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