Owning your own home. It’s a dream, it can be a headache, it’s a way of life rooted in freedom, pride and individuality.
This is the 35th year Habitat for Humanity has provided a path to home ownership to many who would never be able to achieve it. Habitat makes home ownership more than a dream.
At this time, Collier County has funds to build 100 Habitat homes. Being the second Habitat program in the country, Collier County has a history of success.
Immokalee’s demographics make Habitat a very important resource for locals interested in home ownership. However, at this point, there is a lull in local applications. Now is a perfect time for anyone with the dream to take that first step toward realizing it.
Several unique aspects contribute to the success of Habitat for Humanity. For one thing, families are required to have a stake in the process. Habitat doesn’t just build a home and turn over the key, families must invest 500 hours in “sweat equity” when they are approved for a home. That is, they must put 500 hours of work into the building of their home. That can mean hammering nails, building walls, cleaning up the construction site or even working in the Habitat office - it all depends on what the skills of the family members.
Experienced construction workers volunteer to work with the families and Habitat subcontracts jobs like concrete, plumbing, electrical and A/C work.
Training is part of the equity a family invests in its home. Because these are first-time homeowners, it’s important that they’re able to budget their finances, understand the rules and regulations that apply to all homeowners such as taxes and codes and that they have a working knowledge of how to make basic repairs. To ensure that the new homeowners understand the venture they’re starting out on, they are required to attend homebuyer workshops and receive some maintenance education.
There are some 600 Habitat homes in Immokalee. Of these, 100 are not affiliated with homeowners associations. The rest are located in Habitat “neighborhoods” including Carson Lake Subdivision, Independence Estates. Faith Landing is new with 350 lots being dedicated in February. Twenty-four homes have been completed there on Custer Ave. Liberty Landing will not be built out for 2-3 years yet and 14 families are currently in the process of becoming homeowners there. Kaicasa, near Farm Worker Village, will be the next area after that.
At this time, Habitat is building more townhouses rather than single homes in order to conserve space.
There are some 1,575 Habitat homes in Collier County.
To get things started, the program needs donated land and qualified applicants. The minimum annual wage to qualify is $18,000 but the amount is determined by the number of people in the family. Participants make low monthly,interest-free mortgage payments (30 percent of income is your mortgage).
Everyone must make a $1,000 downpayment, which includes the first month payment, plus all escrow for taxes and insurance.
Who lives in Habitat homes?
Habitat homeowners are as varied as residents in any neighborhood. To qualify, you must be a US citizen or legal resident, must have lived or worked in Collier County for one year and be a first time homebuyer.
Dolly McSwain came to Immokalee in 2002 and lived in the Oakhaven Apartments. She said it was okay but there was no place for her four healthy grandsons, ages 5-12, to play, When she came to Immokalee, she worked for RCMA at Carson Lake. Someone there referred her to Habitat. At the time Dolly was not driving due to health reasons and was unable to do a lot of the required work on her new home. But the community helped her and she managed to paint, lay sod and hammer nails.
Moving into a 3BR/1BA Habitat home meant happy days for her boys. There were lots of other kids to play with; they could fish and ride bikes - normal activities they did not have access to at their other neighborhood. For Dolly, having an actual laundry was a godsend.
“It was a great experience for me and my grandsons,” she recalls. The boys grew up happy and safe and successful: including one who earned a BA from FGCU and one headed to college next year. Dolly has since retired now as a medical records tech.
She believes that, if they had not gotten the Habitat home, her boys would not be as “well rounded” as they are - there were too many restraints at the old apartments. This way they learned to have pride in their home and to take care of it. Dolly said she was also impressed with other kids in the neighborhood.
Jerry Sliger and his wife Deyanira have been married 19 years. They have four children ages 18, 13, 12 and 10. Their daughter is at IHS and wants to become a professional sign language translator - a skill she learned from her deaf mother as a child. She has grown up to be her mother’s main communication support and wants to be able to do the same for others.
The Sligers have been in their Habitat home for 1.5 years. Jerry said they previously lived in a crowded drug-infested apartment house. Now the family is safe and comfortable in a 3BR/1BA duplex. Jerry drives a truck and grader for a private company.
The best part, Jerry said, is that they can call it their own. “It’s a real good neighborhood with nice neighbors who watch out for each other. The kids love it! It’s a better environment,” he said, “and their grades have improved.”
Even so, the family is struggling. Jerry’s own dad couldn’t hold a job so Jerry had to start working at age 11 on a farm in his native Kentucky, He never got to finish high school.
Jerry and Deyanira are strong on education and want to send their kids to college, but her SSI check has recently decreased because of the overtime Jerry’s been working to make ends meet.
Sometimes work is hard to come by in Jerry’s job; sometimes there’s an abundance of work and you have to take advantage of it when he can.
He said they try to pay their bills weekly to keep a handle on their finances, “but sometimes it’s not enough.”
In addition to Deyanire’s hearing problem, Jerry has survived a rare intestinal cancer, but said there’s a strong possibility of recurrence. Surgery removed the cancer before, but he said he has no time to go to cancer doctor like he should to keep an eye on it.
When he was diagnosed with cancer he couldn’t work for six months. If it recurs he cannot take time off and still make their bills, which now include a reliable vehicle to replace their old junker.
Deyanire feels comfortable and safe in their home now. In their cramped old apartment, Jerry would voluntarily do night security in their drug-infested area, in near constant communication with the cops. It wasn’t a good place for the children to play outside.
The Sligers say the process was easy but you have to make an “intellectual jump” to do it. They thought they couldn’t manage it because of their credit scores.
“The people here did a tremendous,” Jerry said, and proudly added the sweat equity the family contributed, including painting, installing insulation. Their daughter even helped out in the office.
Janie Castro and her husband of 30 years used to live in two rooms with their two school age girls in school. Now one daughter is at iTECH, studying to become a nurse; the other is 13 years old. The family lives comfortably in a duplex. Janie said she has learned a lot, living in their Habitat home. She grew up in Immokalee and said their payments are better. “Go see if they can help you,” she advises others who have their heart set on a better home and way of life.
Habitat in Immokalee’s Director of Family Services Wilna Cariany has been with Habitat for two years and came to Immokalee last November. The entire process begins and ends with Wilna - from the initial interviews, through the pre-screening to the signing the closing documents
She said the first thing she does is get to know applicants’ needs - understand what will make them comfortable.
“Habitat is really just a different way to buy a home,” she said.
It’s Wilna’s job, along with her staff, to resolve all issues impeding a family from becoming homeowners, educating them as they go through the process. Each family must understand what they’re getting into and “do the work.” That way, they know they’ve accomplished something at the end.
The Family Services Center is located at 640 N. 9th Street, Call 239-657-4466.