Julieta Aquino and her daughter are among a group of 11 low-income families who recently became homeowners in a new Fremont housing development — one they helped build over the past two years as participants in a local Habitat for Humanity project. Each family was required to put in 500 hours of so-called sweat equity, pounding nails and pouring concrete on the construction site.
Julieta Aquino strolls proudly through her gleaming new home, a modest split-level condo on a busy thoroughfare in the East Bay suburb of Fremont.
With her 14-year-old daughter in tow, she proudly scans the still-sparsely furnished, open floor plan living room-kitchen, pointing out the glistening, stainless steel fixtures and laminate countertops.
“It’s a pretty decent-sized kitchen considering it’s just two of us,” said Aquino. “I’m going for a farmhouse style.”
A 31-year-old single mom with a limited income and no college degree, Aquino has done the seemingly impossible: become a homeowner in one of the most brutally expensive housing markets in the country.
And all she had to do was help build it herself.
This summer, Aquino and her daughter, Alexys, were among a group of 11 low-income families who received keys to their new homes in Central Commons, a small development they all helped build the past two years as participants in a Habitat for Humanity East Bay-Silicon Valley project.
Like all future homeowners in the Habitat program, each family was required to put in 500 hours of so-called sweat equity, pounding nails and pouring concrete alongside project managers and volunteer work crews on the construction site.
“It was my first time using a hammer,” Aquino admitted, noting the steep learning curve, one that exposed her to everything from fundamental carpentry skills to a basic understanding of California’s building codes.
“It’s really neat because even while we were building, we were signing our names on the studs. (My daughter) would come around and just trace her hand so she knew that behind the sheet rock and the wall there was her imprint there. It’s cool to know that we left a little piece of us by building the home.”
Aquino opens the sliding doors in the living room, stepping onto a small balcony with a table and gas grill. Below us, a small construction crew is building a set of adjacent units, where 19 other families are expected to move within the year.
“I’m really excited about my grill,” she says, amid the screeching of circular saws and nail guns.
“I look forward to summer cookouts, and having breakfast out here, brunches with family and friends.”
‘Definitely Within My Budget’
Although Habitat owns the property that the development sits on, Aquino and her new neighbors are the legal owners of their individual units. In addition to their sweat equity hours, each family pays a 30-year, low-interest mortgage guaranteed to never exceed 35% of their monthly income.
That, along with zero downpayment and minimal closing costs, puts the prospect of homeownership squarely within the realm of possibility for low-income families like Aquino’s, who make between 30-80% of the area median income, in a region where average home prices easily bubble over $1 million.
“It’s definitely within my budget,” she said, noting that the program requires every participant to be on a monitored savings plan from the minute they’re selected. “I can assure you there is no other place in the Bay Area that I would be able to afford (this) for the amount of money that I’m paying for this monthly. And it’s new. I helped build it. I helped create it. So it’s definitely a unique situation.”
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The 33-year-old local Habitat program, which annually serves more than 1,200 residents in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, is by no means a panacea to the Bay Area’s formidable housing crisis. But it does offer a glimmer of hope in what can be a grim and daunting housing landscape.
Aquino steps back into her new living room, closing the double-paned glass doors, which impressively mask the noise outside. She heads up a flight of stairs to Alexys’ bedroom, explaining that it’s the first real personal space her daughter has had.
For years after she and Alexys’ father split up, mother and daughter shared a room — and a bed — in her parents cramped two-bedroom house in San Jose, where Aquino’s brother, his girlfriend and their newborn son also lived
“I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll be there for a year or two and then we’ll move back out.’ But that didn’t happen as quickly as I thought it would,” she said. “It got really crowded at times. And so I was desperate to find a place for Alexys and I to just move out and have some quiet, some space.”
The stay at her parents’ house stretched to more than five years, she said.
“My initial thought was, I want to go to the low-income housing areas for the rental market,” she added. “It was never a thought in my mind to be a homeowner because that just seemed so far away.”
Alexys also has asthma and the house in San Jose had a serious mold problem, one that resulted in multiple trips to the emergency room.
Even though Aquino’s bedroom is just a few feet down the hall from her daughter’s, she admits that sleeping in separate rooms for the first time in years has been a harder transition than she’d anticipated.
“I’m so used to her just sleeping with me that it’s going to take some time for me to fully let go,” Aquino said. “But she’s really excited to have her own room and have her own space.”
“It’s a different experience,” said Alexys, a thoughtful and soft-spoken teen, of her new room. “It’s your own space, your own privacy.”
Despite being only 30 miles north of San Jose, she added, she felt far away from her old life.
“I cried last night because I don’t get to see my friends,” she said. “But I think Fremont will be a good fresh start.”
Alexys had been too young to participate in the construction process but became a fixture on the work site over the last two years, decorating signs to place around grounds while watching her mom help build their future home.
“It was interesting because you pass by these buildings every day and you never really know all the hard work that goes into them. So seeing it from behind the scenes and how you have to put sheet rock in certain areas and studs between the walls,” she said. “But it did take some time. It was a process.”
Long Waiting Game
Aquino, who works full-time in the accounting department of a medical device company, first found out about the program roughly five years ago. She immediately applied, but was initially rejected because of her poor credit history. A Habitat financial counselor, she said, worked with her to improve her credit score, and when she reapplied a year later, she was approved and put on a housing waitlist with scores of other applicants.
Two-and-a-half years later, she received a call informing her that Habitat had secured a piece of land in Fremont, in partnership with the city.
“Then another year passed by and I was anxious,” she said. “I was constantly emailing my rep at Habitat. It felt like it was just never gonna happen.”
In November 2017 — more than three years after she’d first applied — Aquino was told the project was finally ready to break ground. She entered a final elimination process, in which program staff visited her parents’ San Jose home to assess her current living conditions and confirm her need to move elsewhere.
Shortly after that, Aquino found out that she and her daughter were one of the 11 families — out of the hundreds in the selection pool — chosen to move into the first set of still-to-be-built units.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I felt like it was a miracle, like I had just won the lottery.”
Homeownership, though, still seemed elusive, in no small part because there wasn’t any physical structure yet, and she still needed to put in her sweat equity.
“It was overwhelming to think that I was going to have to do 500 community service hours alone knowing that I’m a full-time mom and full-time employee and it was 30 miles away from where I lived at the time,” said Aquino. But the program offered some flexibility, allowing her friends and family to contribute up to 200 of the required time, and giving her the option to work some hours off the construction site, helping out with Habitat fundraising projects.
Over the next year, Aquino slowly fulfilled her work requirements, putting in time on weekday evenings after picking up her daughter from school, and spending every weekend getting her hands dirty at the construction site.
“So it was possible, but it was a lot,” she said. “I think as long as you really want it, you’ll find a way.”
But Aquino acknowledges that if she hadn’t had the option to stay with her parents, she might not have been able to swing it.
She estimates that roughly 30% of the family and friends she grew up in San Jose have now moved away. “Not just out of the Bay Area to go to Central Valley or to Sacramento,” she said. “No, it’s just moving completely out-of-state. … It’s completely impossible for them to own their own home in the Bay Area.”
The region’s skyrocketing land and construction costs have also placed significant strain on the Habitat’s ability to find affordable building opportunities. The group, which relies on land partnerships with the cities it operates in, recently decided to offer the additional 19 units under construction in Central Commons complex to families with more moderate incomes, earning 80-120% of AMI, rather than the low-income families, like Aquino’s, that moved into the first 11 homes.
“These homes are still affordable, being sold significantly below market rate with mortgages affordable for a moderate-income family,” Patti Wang Cross, a spokeswoman for Habitat for Humanity East Bay-Silicon Valley, said in an email.
The organization’s decision was furthered by a recent decline in funding sources, according to Wang Cross. “It’s a population of families severely impacted by the housing crisis, too often priced out of the homeownership market but seldom served by affordable housing initiatives,” she said.
The new higher income requirement is another reason Aquino is so quick to acknowledge how fortunate she and her daughter are. “Blessed” is an adjective she uses frequently to describe the situation.
“I had my daughter when I was 16, and it’s been quite a journey,” she said. “And being able to say that I’m a homeowner at the age of 31, and she’s 14, I feel like I’ve come a long way. I definitely feel blessed, but I feel like everything that I do, I do because I want to set a good example for her and show her that, although we might make different choices, or in this case sometimes not the wisest choices, I feel like we can still turn things around and make our future different.”
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.