It’s been nearly one year since San Gabriel Valley Habitat for Humanity helped Magaly Duarte Garcia and her family move into their forever home, but the mother of three boys can still hardly believe their good fortune.
“I wake up every day, just so grateful to be able to call it my home and knowing we have security for my family. It’s taken so much stress away,” Duarte Garcia said. “This pandemic has been very stressful, but owning our own home and having space for the boys to study and have their own rooms, it has been a blessing.”
Before Duarte Garcia and her husband were chosen as homeowners to partner with SGVHH, they and the boys shared a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and sister. The family was constantly trying to stay quiet and out of the landlord’s sight for fear of eviction for overcrowding; at night, the two parents would anxiously shush the busy boys to not jump or run or disturb the neighbors. One of her sons, who is autistic, had a hard time being confined in such a small space and would try to run away.
“We struggled badly, it was really hard, and the stress of constantly worrying about getting kicked out …,” she said, her voice faltering — even remembering that time gives her pause. “We prayed so hard for a new home.”
Habitat has long understood the power families derive by building equity through homeownership, and helping them achieve it has been SGVHH’s mission for nearly 30 years. By giving people the opportunity to buy a home with a 0% interest, 30-year mortgage loan, designed to cost no more than 30% of a family’s total income, SGVHH enables families like the Garcias to own homes and build financially for the future, even in the valley’s notoriously tight housing market.
Executive Director Mark Van Lue, who took the helm at SGVHH three years ago, is determined to further expand the nonprofit organization’s reach and create more opportunities for more families across Los Angeles County. That’s where 58% of residents pay more than they can afford in housing costs, and the lowest earners pay 70% of their income on rent, leaving little for food, transportation, health expenses and other needs, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Across America, meanwhile, the average homeowner boasts a net worth that is 100 times greater than that of a renter: $200,000 for homeowners compared with $2,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We continue to pull out every tool in our arsenal to build and create homeownership opportunities for families; we are building across all of our service areas and creating partnerships and building housing of every stripe, including new homes,” he said. “It’s still as big a challenge as it’s ever been around Southern California … but that’s our expertise and what we bring to the table. We don’t have to make profits by building and selling, so that makes projects much more viable. We are very proud of being able to bring in housing at this cost and that we are one of the only ones around who can provide affordable homeownership opportunities to buyers earning below 80% of [area median income].”
Part of the SGVHH’s expansion will include launching a new initiative, called “Expanding the American Dream,” which will serve 100 families over a three-year period. Since its founding in 1990, the organization has helped 227 families achieve homeownership and get help with home repairs, so the new number represents an ambitious program, but one that Van Lue is confident is reachable.
He points to the nonprofit’s four-star rating on Charity Navigator, underscored by the fact that SGVHH has had a 100% success rate among its homeowners — none of its partnering families have ever defaulted on their mortgages. The organization is also well known for its fiscal transparency, and 96 cents of every dollar raised go toward building costs.
“That’s a huge, high number and we’re very proud of that … so when we do go to the community and ask for donations they can be confident where their money is going,” Van Lue said.
SGVHH’s success stems from a tried-and-true process: The nonprofit chooses “partners” and invests in education and training; each family commits to 100 hours of volunteerism with Habitat, called “sweat equity,” typically to help build other homes. The partners also commit to taking 50 hours of financial education, which includes how to save for a financial emergency, like job loss or illness.
That education has proved especially effective for Habitat partners during the pandemic, Van Lue noted, adding that four homeowners who bought their homes some 25 years ago were able to pay off their mortgages early. (“To have a mortgage burning during a crisis, that’s just incredible.”)
For Frances Hardy, director of resource development at the Azusa-based affiliate, Habitat’s mission has become even more urgent during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Housing has never been more of a life-or-death situation than it is now. We want to keep helping families thrive, and we know that homeownership can do that. … It’s what created the middle class in our country, it’s what helps children go to college, it’s what helps people improve and maintain their health and save for the future,” she said.
“Our new campaign initiative will serve more families who are at risk of losing their home or being pushed further and further into substandard housing and really, give them a chance for a better life.”
Advocacy has become an important part of SGVHH’s mission, she added, and Habitat has used its network to encourage grassroots efforts to ensure some housing assistance as part of the stimulus package.
“We are very concerned this health crisis could turn into a housing crisis, and we want to do everything we can — advocacy is key,” she said. “As devastating as COVID is, now is the time for us to say that housing can make all the difference, which is why we want to make housing the norm and not the exception, so our goal of serving 100 families over three years is a way to chip away at that and build a stronger San Gabriel Valley community.”
SGVHH helps offset costs through a variety of governmental and city programs, fundraising and profits from its “ReStores,” home improvement stores and donation centers that stock items ranging from construction material to household appliances and furniture. One is located on San Fernando Road in Los Angeles, and another was just relocated from Azusa to Duarte. The new location has a much bigger footprint and better parking, Van Lue noted, and although retail operations closed for several months due to the pandemic and the subsequent relocation, they’ve bounced back stronger than ever.
“People really missed us while we were gone — there was a lot of pent-up demand. And with schools not reopening, people are setting up their homes for home learning. Because our stores sell products at a deep discount, people also are seeking all the help they can get with their budgets,” he added.
Going forward, SGVHH in the short term will be busier than ever before, Van Lue said, seeking to broaden partnerships with city governments, private for-profit builders and faith-based institutions that might be looking to sell off accumulated property.
“We’ve all realized in the last six months how important a safe, healthy and happy home is … We’ve realized our mission more than ever to help as many people as we can to achieve that goal,” he said. “We are really excited because we’ve been able to dramatically increase our impact and we’re working very hard across our entire team to help achieve our next goal.”
For the Garcia family, celebrating this Thanksgiving in their two-story town home will officially establish the tradition for years to come, Duarte Garcia said. She looks forward to seeing how all the other families at the Glendale development on Lomitas Avenue, a lot of six homes built by SGVHH, will decorate for the holidays. All the families moved in at about the same time, she noted, and have grown close.
“We love seeing our neighbors and all the kids playing outside. … If anyone ever needs anything we’re here for each other, if anyone needs one extra jalapeño, anything,” Duarte Garcia laughed, adding she still has more to do when it comes to decorating her home and feeling moved in. “We’re taking our time, checking things out on Pinterest — it’s a work in progress.”
To learn more about San Gabriel Valley Habitat for Humanity or how to donate to support its mission of housing families, visit sgvhabitat.org/give/donate.