Hammers and Helping Hands Put New Homes in 6 Families' Future

Times Staff Writer

With rent and home prices skyrocketing, Caroline Findlay has been on the move.

Because of the tight housing market, the 26-year-old mother of three and her husband, Mark, had to move about three years ago into her mother's place in Orange, where they found shelter until June, when her mother sold the home.

They packed again and moved into a nearby relative's home, where the family of five shares a single room.

"It's a little cramped, so we're looking forward to having our own place and being stable," said Findlay, a stay-at-home mom with three daughters -- ages 9, 5 and 3 months.

The Findlays were among six families chosen by Habitat for Humanity Orange County to be provided with new homes at affordable prices.

"This is like winning the lottery," she said.

The families and about 150 volunteers celebrated with a groundbreaking and house-wrecking ceremony Saturday at a small complex of duplexes in the 1900 block of Pomona Avenue in Costa Mesa.

Armed with hammers, hardhats and masks, they pounded away at the walls, hauled out refrigerators and stoves and ripped up the stained carpet.

The six units were in such disrepair that it was better to tear them apart and build new homes than renovate them, officials said. The stucco contained asbestos and had been recently removed by a hazardous-materials crew. Termites had gnawed at the wood frames. Mold had thickened around the windows, the aging plumbing was leaking and sewer backups were common.

The city of Costa Mesa donated the properties to Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing housing for low-income families. The duplexes, being rebuilt by volunteers and the eventual buyers, will be sold to the six families at prices far below market rates, said the organization's executive director, Pete Major.

Saturday's project marked the first time that Habitat has teamed up with the Orange County Technology Collective, a nonprofit group made up of various technology associations that raised $9,000 to provide computers, technology lessons and Internet access for homeowners.

"We're doing something new," Major said. "We have a real program where we not only work with the families to get them a house, but we make sure their children can compete at the schools."

Buyers must make a 1% down payment on the home and volunteer 500 hours of "sweat equity," among other requirements.

Kari Bernard, 40, of Tustin, her red sweatshirt stained with white plaster, spent the morning working on her new home, a two-bedroom unit.

"It's good to see our house come together," said Bernard, a stay-at-home mother. "We wanted an upstairs [unit] so we can open the windows and it's safer."

Bernard lives in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment in Tustin with her husband, Walt, 58, their son, Elisha, 3, and two cats.

"It's just a big blessing to own a place of your own," said Bernard, who had been on a waiting list for two years. "It's a dream come true because in this housing market, we can't afford anything."

The Findlay's future home is today nothing but a plot of dirt and grass with chalk markings. The framework will be installed Feb. 22, and it will take up to 10 months to build the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home.

"It's a long way, but it's light at the end of the tunnel," said Findlay.

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