Last winter, David Avila, a janitor at a McDonald's restaurant, his wife, Maria, and their five children were living in a tiny shack in Riverside.
The place was so cramped that some of the children slept in parked cars. There was one lamp for light and a bare concrete floor. The family used an outhouse for showers and toilets.
But those hardships are over for the Avila family.
In April, the Avilas moved into a newly built four-bedroom, two-bath home with a yard bordered with rose bushes that Maria planted. The house has a ramp and extra-wide doorways for the eldest son, Jorge, who is a quadriplegic.
While modest by most standards, the peach-colored stucco house in a run-down Riverside neighborhood is something of a miracle: new housing affordable to a poor family in an era of spiraling real estate inflation when many middle-income families can't buy houses.
The house was built by Habitat for Humanity, a volunteer organization dedicated to housing the poor and homeless. The organization started 14 years ago in rural Georgia, but only recently has caught fire on the West Coast.
The Avila house is the first built by Habitat for Humanity in Southern California. More are planned, and Habitat chapters are springing up throughout the Southland, as well as in the San Francisco Bay area, where one chapter is helping to build housing for victims of last October's earthquake.
As a result of Habitat's efforts in Riverside, the Avilas, who could not afford to rent a decent apartment, are now proud homeowners. They put up $500 as a down payment and agreed to make monthly payments of $350, which covers the mortgage, insurance and taxes.
Getting the Avilas into a house of their own was not easy. It took more than $40,000 worth of donated construction materials and labor, all of it coordinated and overseen by Habitat.
The lot was purchased for $15,000, using grants from foundations and a city block grant.
Then came many weekends of work donated by professional plumbers, electricians and carpenters, as well as by novices who, under professional supervision, helped in pouring concrete, framing and performing a multitude of other tasks.
The Riverside Area Board of Realtors swooped in one weekend to do the landscaping.
Habitat has set the price of the home at $50,000, which is probably half its true market value, and in 20 years, it will be paid for.
The founder of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller, was a self-made millionaire in Montgomery, Ala., who reached a crisis in his life 20 years ago that he says inspired him to give away everything he owned--including a lake cabin and 2,000 acres of land--and dedicate himself to Christian service.
"Habitat is an unashamedly Christian organization, and we are challenging people to help solve the poverty, housing and homeless problems out of a religious motivation," Fuller said in a telephone interview from his home in Georgia.
Fuller said that after helping to build houses for poor Southern blacks and for villagers in Zaire, Africa, he realized that he had a concept that might have worldwide application.
The concept, he said, was to use private funds and volunteer labor to build basic houses, and then to sell them to poor families at no profit on no-interest mortgages.
Money collected from the home purchasers over the life of 15- to 25-year mortgages is recycled into more projects.
Fundamental to the Habitat philosophy is a requirement for the poor who are being helped to work in building their houses. They are required to invest 500 to 1,000 hours of "sweat equity" in home building and other community service.
Habitat officials stress that they are building houses for the working poor, not for derelicts or people in search of handouts.
There are scores of applicants for each house, and the criteria for selection includes both neediness and a commendable employment and credit history. A family's religious affiliation, or lack of it, is not a factor in deciding who gets a house, Fuller said.
The Habitat movement began in Americus, Ga., in 1976, Fuller said, "and by 1980, we were building homes in 11 cities in the United States and three countries."
Habitat got a big public relations boost in 1984 when it attracted the support of former President Jimmy Carter, who works on Habitat projects every summer.
To raise public awareness of the need for low-income housing, Habitat has capitalized on Carter's involvement and the excitement of what it calls "blitz" housing construction.
Each June, Habitat stages a "House Raising Week," during which a large number of houses are built from scratch by volunteers in a "barn-raising" atmosphere.
During this week Habitat plans to build between 600 and 700 houses throughout the United States and overseas, Fuller said.
Also, during House Raising Week, Habitat organizes a "Jimmy Carter Work Camp," where Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, join in the marathon home building.