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A Place to Call Their Own

Half a mile from a pocket of churches in northeast Austin, there is a home christened with paint.

The first place you notice it is in Marciela Garcia’s living room. Here, her husband, Luis, and their two older children have painted red and white stripes along an arch, working hard to mimic the brick archway from Luis’ mother’s home in central Mexico.

Past the dining room, the bedroom of Garcia’s nine year old daughter, Alejandra, is further evidence of the family’s colorful tastes. Alejandra and her older sister, Paola, who often share the bed, could not agree on a wall color, so they compromised: two peach walls for Paola, two purple ones for Alejandra.

“In the morning, they wake up with their little faces together,” Garcia, who bought the house through Habitat for Humanity seven years ago, said through a translator. Her family pays $421 a month towards a 30-year mortgage, a home price the family was unable to find through market listings when they started searching for a house in 2008.

This year, Habitat celebrates its 30th year in Austin. Since opening in 1985, staff and volunteers have built more than 400 homes, repaired more than half that number and provided financial counseling to more than 10,000 families.

“Looking forward, our mission implores us to be at the forefront of Austin’s affordability discussion through denser housing solutions, more comprehensive home repairs, and an expanded number of counseling courses,” Austin Habitat interim CEO Ken Corby wrote in an email.

Habitat employees stress that their houses are not giveaways; families pay for the homes with a low-interest mortgage. To qualify, the family must make less than 60 percent of the median family income. (For a household of four, that comes out to $45,240.) The house costs the price of the building materials – back when the Garcias bought their house, this hovered around $100,000. Today a family buying a home through Habitat will pay roughly $120,000.

Numbers like these are welcome in a city where home prices have swollen in the past few years. According to the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, Austin’s average home price reached $331,900 in July, an increase of roughly $100,000 over the last decade.

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From left to right: Alejandra, Luis, Paola, Marciela and Lillian sit in what used to be a third bedroom. Years ago the family knocked down the wall to widen the living room.

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1. The two-toned walls of the girls’ bedroom bleed into their bookshelf, which they’ve covered in peach and purple stripes. 2. Marciela keeps a garden in the backyard where she grows tomatoes, onions and peppers. 3. Luis Garcia worked with his two oldest children, now grown, to paint the red and white stripes in the family’s living room.

But for Garcia and her husband, a home in Austin has always been out of reach. When they family outgrew their two-bedroom apartment and began looking for a bigger place, buying a house in Austin meant mortgage payments around $1,200 – a monthly expense that would have exhausted more than half of the family’s monthly income of $2,000.

Then the Garcias heard about Habitat homes through one of Luis’ co-workers. As all interested families do, they attended an information session, reviewed their finances with a Habitat counselor and applied. After being accepted, families must complete 300 hours of what Habitat calls “sweat equity,” or volunteer hours before they can move into their new home. Once the hours are complete, the family pays a $1,000 down payment and completes their “lot select” where they choose their future home’s layout, flooring and countertops.

The Garcias bought what turns out to be the most popular house size, a one-story home with three bedrooms, one full bathroom and one half bathroom.

But as Habitat begins a new building project this fall, this favored stock is getting a new look. Architect Claire Walpole said the homes built as part of a new neighborhood called Lee Meadows, located off Montopolis Drive, will be two-storied, and offer more full bathrooms. It’s the first in a number of structural adjustments coming to Habitat homes.

“Changes we made were based on affordability and how different designs make more sense,” said Walpole. She added that Habitat will also build metal roofs as opposed to shingled ones. The material will help keep families’ energy bills low, and metal often outlives shingling.

For Garcia, her mind is also on longevity. On a recent Wednesday morning, her one-year-old granddaughter tried desperately to steer a plastic toy car through a gravel walkway in the family’s backyard, the girl pedaling her legs and rattling the steering wheel. As Garcia looked on, she talked about how she saw her family living in their house for several decades. “I like it,” she said. “It’s simple, but it’s very comfortable.”

CREDITS

Photography by Spencer Selvidge

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