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Habitat for Humanity helps families move in and move up

Today is World Habitat Day

Posted: October 4, 2010 3:23 p.m.
Updated: October 4, 2010 3:23 p.m.

PACOIMA -- Habitat for Humanity's San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valleys chapter doesn't stop working when the last hammer falls.

With the conviction that low-income housing should be more than a subsidy, the nonprofit organization created the landmark Enriched Neighborhood program that works with banks, businesses and universities to give homeowners tools to improve their lives and communities.

On Oct. 16, the San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valleys Habitat for Humanity affiliate is hosting the 5K 2010 American Dream Walk in Pacoima to advocate for safe, decent housing as a universal right.

The Dream Walk begins at Pacoima Plaza at 8:30 a.m. and ends at Habitat's Pacoima project, where the 24 new homes will be built for the next phase of the Enriched Neighborhood program.

While the suggested donation is $20 per walker, everyone is welcome to take part. Many celebrities in fact will be walking, like Mark Ballas from "Dancing with the Stars," Trevor Donovan and Matt Lanter from "90210," as well as cast members from "Glee," "Modern Family," "Big Time Rush," "True Jackson VP," "Days of Our Lives" and "The Young & the Restless," among others.

"We're hoping our Enriched Neighborhood program will be a template for affordable housing providers and catch on nationally, and ultimately, globally," said Jesseca Woywod, a Habitat Community Development and Planning Associate for the San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valleys.

Today, Monday, Oct. 4, is World Habitat Day - a day designated by the United Nations to raise awareness and advocate for decent housing in every country. The issues highlighted this year are international health and housing, and neighborhood revitalization in the United States. With those priorities, it seems only a matter of time before the model Enriched Neighborhood program in Pacoima makes its way across county lines and country borders.

The problem with most subsidized housing is that families must earn an extremely low income to qualify. If their income levels improve, they lose their homes. It's not much of an incentive to try for promotion, find better paying work, or go back to school.

"We want to change affordable housing policies that keep people in the poverty trap," Woywod said. Until Habitat for Humanity succeeds in changing government policy, however, they are changing their approach to the problem.

The Enriched Neighborhoods project will build 24 affordable homes this year, part of their plan to create communities of empowered homeowners. The families who qualify for houses are hard-working people with children - nurse aides, day-care workers, transportation workers - who make less than half of the wages of a middle-income employee. 

Working with three banks, the program provides classes in financial management and training, like "Money matters - keeping track of your finances," and "How to save for college." There are classes on mortgage paperwork, managing bills, and insurance, while partnerships with Pacoima Beautiful and MEND Poverty result in nutrition and gardening classes.

Volunteers put in community gardens and plant fruit trees in the neighborhoods, which not only expose children to live growing food, but also increase social interaction among neighbors. Kaiser Permanente puts on Healthy Families workshops, and the Los Angeles County Fire Department hosts Emergency Responders certification classes.

"If there's a fire or emergency, having this certification gives homeowners a way to give back to the community," Woywod said.

Classes and workshops begin six months before families move in to their new homes, and continue six months afterwards. Families also receive a donated computer at move-in, and members of the UCLA Habitat for Humanity Campus Chapter volunteer to do in-house computer training.

For children, there are teen empowerment programs and tutoring available. The classes and workshops encourage families to help themselves and each other, creating opportunities and hope in a place that is not known for either.

Pacoima, located in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles County, has problems. The city has some of the worst statistics in Los Angeles County for education: Only 40 percent of high school students graduate, and of those who graduate, only 5 percent continue to college.

Social statistics are similarly dismal for the San Fernando Valley: 82 percent of families speak Spanish as their first language, which limits their job prospects; 32 percent of residents are without health insurance; and 40 percent of Pacoima families live below the poverty line.

However, within the Habitat Enriched Neighborhoods, statistics are very different. Every Habitat child has graduated high school, and 92 percent of those graduates have gone on to college or trade school. Half of those students are at four-year universities.

Woywod says that children tell her that they can study better in their own homes than they could when living crowded in with other families. Even some adult homeowners have gone back to school.

In 85 percent of Habitat families, the children and at least one parent speak fluent English thanks to accessible ESL classes, and the same percentage of families has health insurance. The first families to take part in the program more than three years ago report an average 14 percent increase in income.

The Enriched Neighborhood program works by making opportunities for improvement available, enabling - rather than punishing - success, and strengthening community ties within the neighborhood and outside of it.

For more information on the 2010 American Dream Walk, visit


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