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Dream Homes Not Always Mansions

* Empowerment: Habitat for Humanity plans to use land in Piru to build a small subdivision for low-income families.


PIRU — Over the years, Habitat for Humanity has often been known for building one home at a time.

But now the group is going full steam ahead on an ambitious 22-home subdivision for low-income families in this rural enclave east of Fillmore still rebuilding from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Gary Mugridge, executive director for the group in Ventura County, said Habitat for Humanity needs another eight sponsors--corporate or civic groups committed to raising the $70,000 needed to build each home--to complete the project .

Skilled and unskilled construction volunteers are also needed.

Mugridge hopes the holiday season stirs interest in the project.

"Holiday seasons are exciting, mystical, magical, because we're fortunate to live in stable decent homes," he said. "We sometimes forget there are other people out there who are not as fortunate as we are. This is a good time to be thinking of that."

Since its inception in 1984, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter has built a dozen homes scattered on lots throughout Ventura County.

The Piru development, known as the Duneden project, is the nonprofit group's first local subdivision.

After acquiring the 4.5-acre swath of land near the entrance to town, it has taken the group four years to build seven homes and get five more under construction.

Now, Habitat for Humanity wants to pick up the pace and complete construction of the remaining 10 homes by the end of 2001.

The group's homes--usually three-bedroom, two-bath wood-frame structures of about 1,100 square feet--are sold without profit and are free of interest to low-income buyers.

Future owners must each put 500 hours of work into the construction of their houses. To qualify, Mugridge said, a family of four in Ventura County must earn no more than $31,500 a year.

Any low-income resident may apply for a Duneden home, but priority goes to people who live or work in Piru or who were displaced by the earthquake. A Habitat for Humanity committee selects prospective owners from the applicant pool.

Piru, which began as a railroad town in the late 1800s and later became a popular spot for movie filming, has experienced hard times in recent decades.

Unemployment among its 1,800 residents hovers at about twice the county rate. An economy driven by agriculture means much of the work among the 75% Latino population is seasonal. Median household income is $25,000 a year, compared with $46,000 countywide.

When the quake struck six years ago, it devastated several commercial properties and homes, leaving some residents without a place to live.

Soon after the quake, county officials received federal grant money to help restore housing for those displaced by the disaster, said Mary Ann Krause, a field deputy for Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes the area.

"One of the Habitat volunteers was a broker, and he ran across a [land] subdivision that was created in 1909 but had never been built," she said. "The county looked at it and decided, yes, this would work, and the Board of Supervisors awarded Habitat the money to purchase the property."

But the land was in a flood plain and needed to be raised 6 feet before being built on, Mugridge said.

The elements again stepped in, but this time to help.

As El Nino conditions barreled through the county in the winter of 1997, rains shifted tons of dirt to unwanted spots. Habitat officials offered to take the debris off the county's hands; they needed all the fill dirt they could get to raise the flood plain.

Once the flood threat passed, the building began.

Families already have moved into the completed houses. Irma and Jose Luis Sanchez, who have lived for years in nearby housing for farm workers, will move with their three children into the eighth Duneden home when it is ready. Irma Sanchez works at the citrus packinghouse in Piru.

The couple's 17-year-old daughter, Maribel, said owning a home has long been a dream for her parents.

"We talk about it a lot," Maribel said. Her mother already has plans for the backyard. "She would like to plant fruit trees and red roses and grass."

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