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Home at Last : 48 Families Take Title to Habitat for Humanity Project

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the five years of their marriage, Bob and Heddy Greene have lived in a florist van tucked in a corner of the parking lot of Capistrano Valley Baptist Church in San Juan Capistrano.

It has been difficult making do with 67 square feet of living space, stashing clothes in corners, heating water from the church kitchen to take outdoor baths or showering at public beaches, cooking on two portable burners and running the van engine to charge the battery on their small black-and-white television set.

But on Saturday, life changed dramatically for the Greenes and 47 other families who began moving into Mediterranean-style condominiums that they helped to build in Rancho Santa Margarita.

It was the first project completed by the Orange County chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an international Christian organization that helps the working poor become homeowners. Moreover, it was the largest such project sponsored by Habitat in the United States.

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The group’s most prominent members, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were on hand in the summer of 1990 for the Rancho Santa Margarita project groundbreaking ceremonies.

“I thought the American dream of building and owning your own house was dead. But Habitat makes the American dream real,” said Bob Greene, 52, an accounting assistant at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station who earns about $20,000 a year.

Like other home buyers at the Habitat project, the Greenes were required to contribute at least 600 hours of their labor to Habitat before they could sign the escrow papers.

Every Saturday since mid-February, Habitat families have been assisting volunteer construction crews under the supervision of the Fieldstone Co., a leading home builder that along with the Santa Margarita Co., developer of Rancho Santa Margarita, donated land for the project.

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Saturday was payoff time. By 6 a.m., pickup trucks and rented vans had begun pulling up to the freshly painted beige buildings with aqua trim. The vehicles were packed with clothing, furniture and other household items, many of them purchased gradually over the months on frugal budgets or received as housewarming gifts.

The families enthusiastically greeted their new neighbors, many of whom had already become close friends, with hugs and slaps on the back. They convened for a sunrise ceremony to express their gratitude to God and to one another. Then, keys to the new homes were blessed by a priest and passed out.

“This is a celebration of a new day,” Joe Perring, president of the Habitat for Humanity Orange County affiliate, told the group of families, most of whom had gleaned little sleep the night before as they completed last-minute packing.

The families had been selected in part because they were responsible wage earners and lived in cramped or otherwise substandard housing. They were able to buy homes for an average price of $50,000 that would have cost $95,000 to build without donated labor, materials and land and could sell for as much as $125,000 on the open market.

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Buyers were required to make a down payment of about $500 and monthly payments of between $475 and $523, including property taxes and homeowner association fees.

“Two bedrooms are going to be like a mansion,” said Christi Gustus, who had been sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Dana Point with her husband, Reginald, and their two small children, one of whom had been sleeping in a makeshift bed suspended from the ceiling. The extra bedroom will come in especially handy, Reginald said, since his wife is pregnant again.

The Gustus couple donated 939 working hours to Habitat, more than any other family. Besides working each Saturday in Santa Margarita, Reginald left his job as a data entry clerk in Irvine on weekday afternoons to help on another Habitat project in Anaheim, then returned to his job at sunset and worked until midnight.

Gustus said he worked “because I love it. It is for a great cause.”

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Some of the Habitat families didn’t take the requirement as seriously, Perring said, and as a result, 12 of the families moving into the Santa Margarita project Saturday will have to pay rent until they complete their volunteer work requirement and qualify to become homeowners.

He said another five households recently dropped out of the Habitat program. Their units are vacant and available for other qualified people. “We will be taking applications soon,” Perring said.

Financial loose ends also need to be tied up on the project. Perring said Habitat still needs $1.2 million to pay off an interest-free construction loan from the Fieldstone Foundation due at the end of December. Perring said fund raising has been hobbled by the weak economy.

To bring in more donations, Habitat is asking individuals, churches and other organizations to “adopt a house” by providing the $37,000 needed to fund its mortgage.

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Habitat’s goal, Perring explained, is to pay the entire cost of a project up front and use the monthly mortgage payments made by its home buyers to fund new housing projects.

He said Habitat intends to conduct 72-hour work blitzes in October to complete construction of two homes in Anaheim and three in Santa Ana. Within six months, other housing projects will be launched in Brea and Anaheim, he said.

Brian Trigg, Fieldstone’s construction supervisor in Rancho Santa Margarita, said the company is helping to put together a film about the project that will be shown to other builders to demonstrate how affordable housing can be built in metropolitan areas.

Frank Foster, regional manager for Fieldstone, said the company “would very much like to be able to do it again,” perhaps on other large landholdings that it has in San Diego and Chino.

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The excitement among Habitat and Fieldstone officials, volunteers and new residents, including children, reached a peak Saturday. Chad Booth, 12, proudly showed off a mural of a red Mercedes-Benz that his grandfather had painted on a wall in his bedroom, with the boy’s name on the license plate.

Bob Greene said he had been too “wired” to sleep the previous night and was up at midnight putting together a Hoover vacuum cleaner in his van, with his wife holding a flashlight so he could read the instructions.

On move-in day, Heddy Greene hummed as she bounded up the steps to their second-story home. “This is the day! " she shouted.

A native of the Philippines, Heddy followed the custom of putting rice, sugar and salt under the bed--which she said would assure that the family would never go hungry.

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Bob Greene gazed with affection at his wife, noting how five years ago the couple, who had become acquainted through a mail-order dating service, met one day and married the next.

Greene, a recovering alcoholic, said that about 10 years ago he was homeless, taking shelter in the caves and bushes of Laguna Beach and depending on welfare and panhandling to make ends meet. Eventually he obtained treatment for his alcoholism and earned a two-year degree at Saddleback Community College.

Greene recently was chosen to serve on the homeowners association board of directors that will govern the Habitat subdivision, called Carino Vista.

“Once I thought everyone was mean and cruel,” he said. “Habitat changed my mind. I have faith in people now.”

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