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Habitat Happiness

Volunteer Project Fills a Need, but Too Few Homes Are Available, Some Say


PANORAMA CITY — Ever since moving into his new home on Willis Avenue last summer, Mauricio Herrera has driven home for lunch each day.

The 1,200-square-foot three-bedroom home is smaller than the two-bedroom rental house Herrera shared with his wife and three children in North Hollywood, but it is warm, quiet and bright--and a constant source of joy to the family.

"You know owning a home is so different," said Herrera, a shipping manager for a local sportswear manufacturer. "All of us--my wife and the kids--we enjoy being at home even if we're just watching TV. We love our private place in the back. We don't have the stress of being around people all of the time."

"Every morning--even if I haven't had enough sleep--I wake up so happy," he said.

The Herreras are one of nine families that built homes on Willis Avenue in a mini-subdivision sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit Christian organization that works to make home ownership possible for lower-income people.

All the families pitched in to build the modest houses, with help from Habitat volunteers and some donated materials. Habitat helps the buyers finance the purchase, allowing the Herreras to buy their $95,000 home for a 1% down payment and monthly payments of $551 over the next 30 years.


"From the foundation . . . to the roof," Herrera said, "I put a lot of nails in this house."

Founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller, the organization has built 100,000 homes and hopes to build another 100,000 in the next five years.

The San Fernando/Santa Clarita chapter has built 46 homes locally since it opened in 1992 and plans to build 135 more over the next five years.

In its most ambitious local project, Habitat has acquired a four-acre site on Pierce Street in Pacoima, where it plans to build 53 homes over the next four years, said Terri-Lei Robertson, executive director of Habitat's San Fernando/Santa Clarita chapter.

Robertson said the group hopes to have 20 homes in Pacoima completed by 2001. Habitat is also working toward building new developments in Burbank and Val Verde.

The Herreras' home is one of nine two-story houses on a three-quarter-acre lot. The homes form an L-shape around a common concrete area that serves as both driveway and playground, secured by a high iron fence.

Each unit has a narrow backyard and a few feet of dirt along the sides for flower beds or a vegetable garden. Together the homeowners just finished building redwood fences between the houses.

"My wife loves to plant," Herrera said. "Now, she can have her own garden."

Mauricio and Aida Herrera were chosen to participate in the program by a selection committee that considered such factors as need and the applicants' willingness to invest sweat equity. Although Habitat is a Christian group, applicants of all religions and races are eligible.

The program has clearly improved life for the Herreras and the 46 other Valley families lucky enough to be selected. But it's a drop in the bucket considering the need for low-income housing, said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County.

"Programs such as Habitat for Humanity are doing very small projects. The program is good and they're showing some innovative ways of doing things, but it's just not enough," Kyser said

Kyser did credit Habitat for innovative use of space. In the Panorama City subdivision, for example, space is economized by using the driveway/play area as a common frontyard.

"We need a new paradigm," Kyser said. "We need to rethink the way we use space. Do we really need the big backyard, the big frontyard, the sideyards?"


Robertson acknowledged the great demand for affordable housing, and said that is why the group is accelerating its efforts.

"We know the need is great. I would rather see Habitat build 135 homes than say the problem is too great, let's not do anything," she said. "We can't build a million homes right now. We'd love to but we can't."

In many areas of the country, Robertson said, local governments donate land for Habitat projects. Such donations are rare in Los Angeles County, she said, although Burbank recently donated a parcel for an eight-home development on West Elmwood Avenue.

"Sometimes the community doesn't understand what we do," she said, adding that people sometimes confuse Habitat developments with government housing projects.

Once people understand that their neighbors will be committed homeowners, she said, they usually welcome the developments.

If a Habitat homeowner decides to sell, the organization has the first option to buy the property. Homeowners get a percentage of equity based on the number of years they've lived in the home.

Robertson said there has been virtually no resistance to Habitat developments in the Valley area.

But at least one prospective homeowner was displeased with his new home, she added. A man whose house was destroyed in the Northridge earthquake refused his new Habitat home in Santa Clarita, saying it was ugly.

"He wanted a new mansion, " said Robertson, "and we build simple, decent homes."

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