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There’s No Place Like Did-It-Yourself Home

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Times Staff Writer

Like many homeowners, Doan Do and his neighbors are eager to show off their new homes, proud to point out the spacious living room or the barbecue on the backyard patio.

But Do, 35, and his neighbors are not typical homeowners. In addition to holding regular full-time jobs, the 20 Santa Ana couples labored 40 hours a week through more than a year of financial snags, bruised fingers and aching backs to build their own condominiums from the foundation up.

The project, called “El Sueno Imposible,” the impossible dream, was finally finished Saturday, and to celebrate their dreams come true, the couples, their families and friends sipped champagne in the afternoon sun and discussed how glad they were that the hard work was over.

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The project was organized by the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., a private, nonprofit organization in Santa Ana that helps find housing for low- to moderate-income families who otherwise could not afford to buy homes.

For their year of sacrifice, the builders have five buildings, each containing four units. Most say they would gladly do it again. The 1,300-square-foot condominiums, worth $95,000 to $105,000, will cost each couple about $62,000, according to project organizers, with the difference made up in what is known as “sweat equity.”

“It’s the American Dream,” said Do, an electrical engineer and native of Vietnam who moved into his home on Christmas Eve with his wife, Nhumai, and their three children.

“It was more than worth it,” Do said of the hard work. “Last year I got my American citizenship and a new house. What more could you ask for?”

Payments on the completed condominiums will average about $650 per month, and each family was qualified for a $10,000 mortgage because their labor reduced the price of the homes, and the county government offers low-cost mortgages to families in their income brackets.

To participate in the program, the families had to qualify as either low- or moderate-income, as defined by the county’s median income for a family of four. A low-income family makes less than 80% of the median, or less than $18,400 a year. A moderate-income family must make 80% to 120% of the county median, or $18,400 a year to $27,600 a year.

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Pride was the prevailing feeling among the homeowners as they escorted visitors around the complex, showing off the hard-earned results of a project that was conceived three years ago and patterned after a similar build-it-yourself condominium development in Oakland.

“It’s a relief to have all the hard work finished,” said Sonya Garay, a housewife who worked on the project with her husband, Robert. “I really didn’t think we’d make it. In the beginning, all the women would say ‘Cut this for me, honey.’ But that stopped. If you could get through it and count all your fingers and they were still on your hand, then you knew you could do it.”

Other than a few minor scrapes and bruises, there were no injuries during the project. Nevertheless, most of the couples acknowledged that in the middle of the project, there were complaints that some were shirking the required 40 hours. To remedy that, the group voted to penalize those caught cheating by deducting 50 hours from their accumulated time. But that measure never became necessary.

“About halfway through the project the stress caught up with us,” Philip Gallegos said. “It got pretty bad.”

“Tempers began to flare, and people began to blame each other for little things,” said Sanna Bilek, 29, who with her husband Jose, 30, is co-owner of a janitorial service.

Skills Varied

Sanna Bilek said the problem may have been that the people brought varying degrees of skill to the project.

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“Some people thought it would be harder and some thought it wouldn’t be as hard,” Bilek said, “but there were a lot of really dedicated people. We had to be understanding because we realized we were doing this for our future.”

Each family received basic instruction in construction and carpentry from experts hired by the project organizers. Tasks requiring more advanced skills were done by subcontractors.

All seemed to agree that the overall construction quality is, in their opinion, equal to if not better than that of prefabricated housing.

“There’s no comparison,” said Karen Aguilar, 25, a loan processor who worked on the project with her husband, Ruben, a letter carrier. “I think the quality is better, I really do. When we made a mistake, we pulled it out and did it again. I don’t think a contractor would do that.”

Although their dream has been realized, everything is not perfect.

“Our mortgage payments start Feb. 1, and I still haven’t moved into my house yet,” Aguilar said. “We don’t even have gas yet. It’s kind of frustrating. The other people have been in their homes about three weeks.”

Address Lottery

The Aguilars and three other families occupy the last building to be completed, and they were the last to move in. The families decided who would live where only a few months before the move-in date by putting the 20 addresses into a hat and selecting at random.

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Other problems have surfaced. On New Year’s Eve, the complex had its first brush with crime when a would-be burglar smashed a window while trying to break into the home of Araceli and Orlando Calleros. He was chased away be several alert residents.

“My neighbors across the street saw it,” Calleros said. “There were 15 people out there in a matter of minutes.”

But the problems are minor, and project officials said there is already a long list of applicants for the next phase of the project, scheduled to begin in six months.

Pete Major, executive director of the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., said there are architectural plans for eight units to be built across the street, and seven more units are on the drawing board for nearby Jackson Park.

Funding for the project was provided by foundation grants, direct and indirect government grants, and private donations. There were contributions from a total of 20 organizations, including the City of Santa Ana and Orange County.

Project officials said the development is the largest owner-built housing condominium in the country and that similar projects are now under way in San Bernardino; Salt Lake City; Nashville, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo.; Anchorage, Alaska; Portland, Ore., and Hartford, Conn.

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