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'Sweat Equity' Gives Family a Home

May 30, 1991|JUSTINE SAHLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nine years, the six members of Jaime and Antonia Lopez's family lived in a crowded one-bedroom apartment near downtown Long Beach. Then, recently, their dream of owning their own home came true.

The family attended a groundbreaking ceremony for their own four-bedroom house, which they will help build on a lot in the 1200 block of East Leigh Court.

"It was a dream, to have our own house--not even a house, just something a little bigger. This is like a fantasy!" said Antonia Lopez.

The family will receive the first house built by the Harbor Area/Long Beach chapter of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit organization that provides housing for low-income families.

The program requires that families contribute "sweat equity"--helping build their own house and other houses for families in the program, Habitat official John Murray said.

"This is not a giveaway program, but an opportunity for families to work, in partnership with volunteers, to build their own homes," Murray said.

The Long Beach chapter was formed 18 months ago. Land for several homes was purchased with the aid of a $250,000 grant from the Housing Development Company, a nonprofit corporation formed by the city to distribute money from the city's housing trust fund for low-income housing programs.

"It's a very worthwhile cause, and we were happy to be a part of it," said Diane McNeal, vice president of Housing Development Company.

Habitat for Humanity solicited businesses to get donations of building materials. Then the organization's selection committee chose the Lopez family for the first project in Long Beach.

Family selection is based on need, ability to make the mortgage payments (the projected $350-a-month no-interest mortgage is close to the $325 rent the Lopez family now pays) and on a willingness to become partners in the program. There are meetings to attend and volunteer work to be performed before families know if they will be selected.

"We don't send out forms through the mail, for example. Families have to come in, in person, to pick them up. The idea is to identify families who are willing to commit on every level to secure the dream of home ownership," Murray said.

"The Lopez family was selected because of their strong character, a solid employment record and commitment," explained Murray.

Jaime Lopez, 33, works at a Los Angeles-based leather factory. The Lopez family does not own a car, so Lopez leaves his home at 4 a.m. each workday and takes two buses and the Blue Line to get to work at 6 a.m.

"He doesn't get home until about 6 p.m.," his wife, Antonia, said.

Antonia Lopez, 33, rides her bicycle about two miles to her job as an aide to the elderly, where she has worked, six days a week, for nearly five years. Glowing references from several of her clients helped the family secure the Habitat house.

Antonia and Jaime Lopez came to Long Beach 13 years ago from Jalisco, Mexico. They have four children: Mericia, 14, Jaime Jr. 10, Brazil, 8, and Maritona, 6. Families are selected for Habitat homes over single adults, because the need is determined to be greater.

Sue Nelson, chairwoman of the Habitat Family Selection Committee, said that to qualify, a family of four must have an annual income between $12,000 and $20,000 that is not subsidized by the givernment.

In exchange for help in obtaining their home, the Lopez family has agreed to work 1,000 hours for Habitat.

"Anything they need us to do, we will do," Antonia said.

The hours can be shared by family and friends, and involve more than construction, painting and physical labor.

"We look at the family and try to determine what we think they need. They may need a budgeting class. They've never had a home, so maybe they need a home-maintenance class, whatever we think would help them to become good homeowners," Nelson said. The class time contributes toward the commitment.

Habitat for Humanity International was founded in 1976 by Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda, in Atlanta. The organization's international headquarters is now a few miles away in Americus, Ga.

Former President Jimmy Carter became involved with Habitat during his years in the White House, and has continued to lend his support by staging and attending an annual work camp and a week of hard work to build more than 100 houses.

Habitat has built or renovated more than 9,000 homes for the poor, and continues to start construction on new homes at a rate of 12 per day. There are more than 400 affiliate projects in the United States, Canada and South Africa, and more than 70 sponsored projects in 26 developing countries.

As part of its 15-year anniversary this year, Habitat's international goal is to build 1,500 houses from June 17 to Sept. 28, during the organization's Summer Anniversary celebration.

Local interest in Habitat has been increasing. "(Since) we've been in Long Beach, our mailing list has grown from 12 households to 825," said site selection chairman David Reed.

Habitat officials said they do not accept government money for construction of homes, but they do accept other forms of government support such as grants to buy land, pave streets and hook up sewers.

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian housing ministry, with several local churches providing support for the Lopez project. Religion is not a factor in selecting families to receive Habitat houses.

For more information, or to volunteer, call (213) 438-5198.

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