News Column

A place to call home: Sweat equity enables couple to achieve dream

May 9, 2014

By Kelley Christensen, The Montana Standard, Butte

May 09--Five years ago, Crystal Cabrera and Richie Abraham applied for a home loan. They jumped through the hoops, did everything they were told to do, and yet they were still turned down.

Discouraged, the couple gave up, figuring they'd never be able to buy a house in Butte, even though they knew a mortgage payment would cost half their rent payment.

Then they heard about Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Montana, a program that turns their sweat equity building the house and others into an affordable, energy efficient home with a 30-year mortgage.

Standing in the kitchen of their nearly completed home on North Main Street, Cabrera and Abraham had the look of people who couldn't quite believe their luck.

"It's surreal that this is actually happening," said Abraham, a chef at the Butte Country Club. "Without this program we'd never have been able to get a house."

The couple's first step toward achieving their dream of home ownership was receiving credit counseling through the National Affordable Housing Network in Uptown Butte. They caught up on bills and brought up their credit scores. They both opened savings accounts for the first time in their lives.

Cabrera began working on the house in early 2013.

It's a misconception that Habitat for Humanity houses put low income people into a house for free, said program officials. In reality, the future homeowners must commit 32 hours a week to building their house and to helping on other simultaneous Habitat and self-help housing projects. At the end of the build, the homeowners still have a 30-year mortgage.

In this round of building, six families worked together to build six homes around town. Two of the houses are Habitat houses, while the other four are part of the National Affordable Housing Network's self-help program, which helps families get into homes without a down payment by doing much of the building themselves. To qualify for the program, the family's income can be no great than 80 percent of the area median income, which according to the U.S. Census was $39,211 in 2008-12. In that program, 65 percent of the construction labor is supplied by the homebuyers.

This barn-raising technique of home construction allows families to help each other build these homes and create a community of friends while they're at it.

"It's a support structure," said Barbara Miller, the National Affordable Housing Network executive director. "Team builds are more efficient; they work better."

Though professionals take care of the plumbing and electrical, and students from Montana Tech do the framing, the homebuyers put up drywall, paint, install siding and flooring and myriad other tasks.

In Habitat houses, much of the building materials are provided for free by local vendors, and the labor is supplied by the many hands of volunteers making light work. Miller said more than 150 people worked on the two Habitat houses in the past year.

Abraham said he and Crystal met "a lot of really good people" in the process.

"It made me feel like I could be a bigger part of the community than I was. We were painting Joe's house on Christmas Eve. We were hanging drywall when it was 20 below. Helping the other families makes you feel good inside."

For Cabrera, the most difficult part was juggling the build with the rest of her life.

"I have a full-time job. I have four kids," she said. "I feel like I've missed out on the first year of my (youngest) son's life."

And a few months into construction, Cabrera was laid off when the 4B's restaurant closed. She felt overwhelmed, like the walls were closing in on her, and she wanted to give up. She and Richie split for a while, too.

"I didn't think I could do it. I was a single mom, working minimum wage," she said. "Every time I've worked for something this hard, it gets screwed up."

But she was able to find a job as the assistant manager and grocery merchandiser at a Town Pump station, a job she enjoys. The folks at the National Affordable Housing Network cheered her on. Cabrera's sister helps care for her four young children. Despite the challenges, Cabrera and Abraham made up their differences and look forward to sharing their new home with their children.

"It's the greatest accomplishment that I've ever done," Cabrera said. "I encourage other people to go ahead and try. My family is like, 'Christmas at your house this year!'"


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Source: Montana Standard (Butte)

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