Habitat for Humanity houses another family in time for Christmas

Vanesa Villarreal decorates a Christmas tree in the living room of her new home after a dedication ceremony on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Just an hour before the key ceremony, members of Habitat for Humanity were making finishing touches on the 1,200 square foot home they spent three months building.

Representatives were seen mopping the chestnut wooden floors, making final checks on interior lights and hanging the last of the red and green ornaments on the Christmas tree standing in the empty living room — a gift from the McAllen South Rotary Club to the Villarreal family who will be spending their first Christmas in their new home.

Just a year after she reached out to Habitat for Humanity, a non profit organization that helps low income families own homes at affordable mortgages, Vanesa Villarreal was handed the keys to her three-bedroom, two-bath home Dec. 14.

“It feels amazing,” said Villarreal, mother of three. “I have been waiting for this for a while.”

The ceremony took place on the parking lot of the McAllen home at noon Friday. In the windy brisk air, members of Habitat for Humanity and partners, including the McAllen South Rotary Club and McCoy’s Building Supply, gathered on the front lawn to congratulate Villarreal.

For the past 16 years, Villarreal and her three children have been living in one room in her mother’s house. Last August, her oldest son, Arturo, left for his first semester at Sam Houston State University. Even then, she said that with her 2-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, it was still tough living in one room.

“It is a tight space; we didn’t have space,” said Villarreal, who works for DHL Freight Tracking. “It is not impossible, but it is different having your own place to call yours. I am excited to start building a home. I have this now, but you still have to build your home to make it your own.”

Villarreal discovered Habitat for Humanity while scrolling through Facebook and said that she has been grateful ever since she sent her application.

“They have been there and it has been a blessing,” Villarreal said. “Since I found the organization, I have been thankful ever since. I applied and it all took off from there.”

Construction for the house took three months and was built to be energy efficient. In an effort to keep the energy bill low, construction supervisors used LED lights throughout the home and installed foam board insulation to make it resistant to the heat and cold. Additionally, exterior walls are made of fiber cement for strength and resistance to rotting.

Since the establishment of Habitat for Humanity in 1988, the nonprofit organization has constructed over 160 houses across the Rio Grande Valley and is now averaging 10 homes a year. This is the third home Habitat for Humanity has built in partnership with the McAllen South Rotary Club.

Executive Director, Wayne Lowry, said the foundation of the organization stands on the values of “strength, stability and self-reliance” while offering a “hand up and not a hand out.”

“We help those who are looking for help,” said Lowry, former preacher at Church for Christ. “Instead of kind of looking down at people, we want want to work with families who are striving for better living conditions.”

In his speech during the ceremony, Lowry told the narrative of his own housing situation as a child and how his passion for the organization is built on the respect he has for his dad.

“The reason I do it is because I remember growing up, my dad was working two jobs,” said Lowry, who is going onto his fourth year as executive director. “He was going to school full time, putting himself through college to provide a way for our family. We did not always have the nicest things, but always had a roof over our head. He always cared for us and provided, and I want to share that legacy to other families.”

Lowry noted the importance of a stable home to the family, especially children.

“There is something special about having your own place,” Lowry said. “When children grow up in a better environment, they are bound to become better people with the stability of a home, and I want that for as many families as we can help in the Valley.”

According to the National Housing Federation, children who have lived in temporary accommodation for over a year are three times as likely to have mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Additionally, according to Shelter, a housing and homelessness charity, 25 percent of people are kept awake at night by the stress of paying rent or mortgage.

Families applying to purchase a home through Habitat for Humanity must have a steady income that falls between 30 to 80 percent of the median income, a debt-to-income ratio that is no greater than 45 percent, and a collection account of no more than 2,500 dollars. The organization also reviews the family’s need and allows them to explain to representatives what their current situation is.

Maria Coria, a project manager, said that the organization looks for families who can become responsible homeowners and will be able to afford the mortgage.

“They do pay back the house, but in affordable payments,” said Coria, who is going onto her fourth year working for Habitat for Humanity. “Families also have to show a need. That is very important for us. We let them explain their situation to us; it could be overcrowding, poor plumbing. For the Villarreal family, the situation was overcrowding.”

Coria also explained that during the process of construction, the family must document 300 hours of “sweat equity,” which is time spent assisting workers on the house or at the organization’s ReStore in McAllen, where furniture and home appliances are sold at a fraction of the retail price.

She said that her favorite part of her job is being able to communicate with the families.

“I am very blessed because I get the opportunity to get to know the families and see how they are happy every time they come and see the construction of their new house,” Coria said. “I saw the oldest one through the transition of finishing high school and moving to college. So that gives him the sense that when he is off, he can come home to an actual home. It sets him up for a path of success.”

Arturo, 18, is pursuing a degree in criminal justice and said he has been anticipating the opening of his new home.

“I have been waiting for this for a while and it feels amazing,” Arturo said. “Now I can cook and make my mom breakfast. I mean, I could do that in our other home, but it’s so crowded. I am really happy for my mom.”

Vanesa is also looking forward to starting new traditions.

“Something I have been wanting to do is make ornaments with my kids,” she said.

Habitat for Humanity also offers other programs that confront other needs in the community. Programs include Aging in Place, which builds ramps, railways and other home modifications for seniors to help them stay and live in their homes longer; Brush Up Harlingen, which fixes minor exterior home repairs in Harlingen; and Helping Hand Disaster Relief, which supports families who were severely affected by the rains in late June. This program has helped 40 homes since then.