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Program benefits buyers, builders

At-risk young workers are hired to construct Santa Ana homes that will sell at low prices.

August 31, 2008|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana is home to two struggling populations: families who cannot afford to buy homes and young people, who with little education or training, often get swept up by gangs and crime.

But in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, municipal officials and local nonprofit organizations are preparing to fight both problems at once.

Starting this fall, a crew of young people who have pledged to turn their lives around will build three houses intended for first-time buyers in the Logan community, a working-class neighborhood that police say has been claimed for generations by a gang.

Together, the group of former gang members, high school dropouts, recovering drug users and recent parolees will construct the bungalow-style three- and four-bedroom houses. The residences will be sold through a lottery for below-market prices -- as little as $160,000 -- aimed at low-income first-time home buyers. Preference will be given to families who live or work in Santa Ana.

Organizers said the yearlong project will provide the workers with vital job experience by having them build homes from the ground up. And when they are finished, three low-income families will move into homes they can afford.

This month, the city approved a $1.5-million agreement with the Orange County Community Housing Corp., a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income housing. That group is contracting with Hope Builders, a construction company founded by Taller San Jose, a Santa Ana Catholic nonprofit that trains troubled youth in the fundamentals of construction and carpentry.

The three homes will be the firm's first major construction project.

"Many of our members carry shame for a destructive past," said Shawna Smith, executive director of Taller San Jose. "Now, it's about building."

The group has selected a crew of six graduates from its 16-week construction training program to carry out the work. They expect to break ground in October.

Frank Banda, 20, a former Santa Ana gang member who was hired for the project, said that being on a construction crew full of people trying to change their lives offers a camaraderie that transcends neighborhood loyalties.

"We're able to work with people who once were enemies and people who you would never think you would get along with," he said.

"It's more important than just building a house," he said. "This is a chance to give back to the community. To go home and feel that you made it possible for a family to live and grow and be happy."

The project may revitalize the mixed-use Logan community. The six-block neighborhood bumps up against the 5 Freeway and the bustling train station. It is an area that was home to farmworkers as early as the 1890s and during decades of segregation was one of the only parts of the city where Latinos could live.

In recent years, neighborhood activists have battled noise, pollution and traffic from a locally based garbage hauler and a crematory, saying the city turned a blind eye to their concerns in favor of industry. But since a new development of lofts was built nearby and the city purchased three vacant lots for the new homes, some of the worries have waned.

Joe Andrade, a local activist, welcomed the project as a signal that the city was giving priority to families.

"With three more houses, we're making this back into a residential area," he said.

The leaders of Hope Builders said construction trades can offer a way out of a life of crime.

Brian Luengas said his extensive criminal record makes it hard to find and keep a job. But graduating from Taller San Jose's construction training program and preparing to build the homes in Logan is helping Luengas, 27, put his life back on track.

"For the first time in my life, I'm actually holding a job," said the single father of three.

"I'm working hard and doing something I never thought I would do: I'm going to work, coming home and living the family life."

These days, Luengas, who was released from prison three months ago, said his children are his motivation. His father, after all, was a construction foreman, and his grandfather an electrician -- the trade he wants to become certified in. He said he wants to work with his hands as they did and provide an example to his sons and daughter.

Organizers of Hope Builders say their goal is to break even on their first project. If successful, they would like to replicate the program in other parts of Orange County.

Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez, whose district includes Logan, said she would like to see more programs that combine job training and second chances for youth with subsidized homeownership.

"This is about investing back into the community and feeling ownership in Santa Ana," she said. "We want to give families the opportunity to live the American dream and be able to afford a home where they grew up."


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