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Habitat short on volunteers in Stanislaus County

Sweat equity always has been required from families buying Habitat for Humanity homes. In trade for their hard work building houses, buyers get to purchase bargain-priced homes with interest-free mortgages.

But sometimes volunteer labor isn't fast enough to get the job done.

That apparently is the case for Habitat's Hope Village, a 20-home construction project in west Modesto.

"We're shifting away from volunteer labor to paid labor at this point," said Anita Hellam, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Stanislaus.

A grant used to help finance Hope Village required 10 of the houses be occupied this summer.

The framing has been done, but the homes need a lot of work to finish on time. Hellam said hiring professionals to complete the work was the project's "backup plan."

Fortunately for the organization, there are plenty of idle contractors and construction trade workers. "We're finding good deals," said Hellam, noting how Applegate-Johnston Construction of Modesto has been hired to finish the homes. "And this supports the local economy."

Habitat started rehabilitating and building affordable homes in Stanislaus County in 1989. Its volunteers typically worked on a few homes at a time, and they completed about 30 houses during the past two decades.

Hope Village was the nonprofit agency's first big development. But its timing hit the housing market all wrong.

Land bought in 2004

Using primarily government funds, it bought the subdivision's land near the peak of the real estate market. It paid $650,000 in mid-2004 for the two-acre parcel at the east end of Houser Lane, near Paradise Road and Martin Luther King Drive.

Construction was supposed to begin by 2006, but delays pushed back the groundbreaking until June 2008.

When Hope Village was planned, Modesto housing prices were out of reach for most median-income families, and low-income residents had virtually no chance to buy. But home prices have dropped about 66 percent in the past 3½ years.

In April 2006, for example, the median sales price for homes in the 95350 ZIP code was $319,000. Last month, the median price there was $103,500.

Habitat initially had expected Hope Village would attract many more buyers than it had houses, but that hasn't been the case.

"We're looking for 10 more families," Hellam said.

The new homes will sell for $90,000 to $120,000. There are three floor plans: a two-bedroom 950-square-foot two- story, a three-bedroom 1,150- square-foot single-story and a four-bedroom 1,300-square-foot two-story.

The homes will be energy- efficient and have private yards, but they will be on very small lots.

Hope Village houses will have deed restrictions that require the homes remain affordable to low-income families for at least 20 years. During that time, families who buy there will have mortgage payments that will be limited to no more than 30 percent of their income.

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Future owners put in work

Anna and James DeLaO are looking forward to having such an affordable place to live.

"We're going to get one of the two-bedroom homes, but we don't know which one yet," said Anna DeLaO, who was doing construction work Wednesday afternoon at Hope Village. She and her family have volunteered 400 hours. "I try to put in two days a week."

The DeLaO family lives with James' parents in Modesto because they've struggled to make ends meet on one salary.

"Me and my husband feel so blessed to get a home," DeLaO said. "We want to continue working with Habitat after we move in."

Habitat is seeking not only 10 more families for Hope Village, but 30 additional families willing to help build or renovate their own homes elsewhere in Stanislaus County.

The agency took about 30 government officials and community leaders on a bus tour Wednesday to show some of the homes it has completed, where it's building now and where it plans to build soon.

Hellam said Habitat homes are the best deal around. Those who put in their volunteer hours will be able to buy homes for about $500 to $650 per month.

Stanislaus County residents get preference for the program. The buyers also must have low incomes, which includes families of four earning as much as $48,000 per year.

Participants must be U.S. residents who can document they have worked steadily for the past three years. They must have credit scores of at least 600 and complete a series of counseling sessions about being a homeowner.

A $1,500 down payment is required.

"We've been saving money for that since December," DeLaO said.

For more information about buying a Habitat home, call 575-4585, ext. 100, go to the Modesto office at 630 Kearney Ave., or go to www.StanislausHabitat.org.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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