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Lesser known rural loans help get families into homes

Sweat equity and federal loans a lifeline for low-income families
A neighborhood built by Florida Home Partnership
Posted at 6:06 AM, Aug 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-18 05:07:02-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla.  — A home loan program run by the United States Department of Agriculture has helped more than a thousand people in Hillsborough County build their dream homes.

Since 1993, the nonprofit Florida Home Partnership has used the rural development loan to help low-income families that qualify through the process.

"The USDA Mutual Self-Help program is what we do," said Mike Morina, Executive Director of Florida Home Partnership. "I've been in the nonprofit housing industry for 30 years, and I've never seen a program like it and still haven't. And, it's kind of a secret because it's mostly in rural areas."

Participants contribute a minimum of 600 hours of "sweat equity" in the construction of their homes and help build other homes in the neighborhood. The nonprofit does the background work to guide people through the process.

"We've built more than 1,000 houses since we've started, and all for low and very low-income families," Marina said. "And, the way that it works, that's different, is Florida Home Partnership gets a two-year grant from United States, USDA, and with that grant, they pay us to run this program to be the technical adviser, if you will. And what we do is go and find land; we develop the land. And we do all of the things, and it's quite an ordeal to buy land, put in the road and sewer, do all the engineering."

Morina said it all leads to significant savings.

"I'm signing contracts today for $100,000 to $120,000 under what it would cost to buy the same home from the regular market," Marina said. "That is just an enormous difference. That sounds like quite a bit of equity, which can change people's lives."

It changed Florida Home Partnership loan manager Teresa Alvarado's.

"When I bought my house, it was under $100,000," Alvarado said. "Now, it's like, can you find anything under or around $100,000?"

Alvarado moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 14 years old. She got an education, learned English, and worked hard. But then, something else happened when she bought her home 17 years ago.

"The person that did my loan called me and said, 'hey, explain to me the program in Spanish.' And you know, of course, I did. And she's like, 'okay, how would you like to work for us? You're hired.'"

Alvarado's worked her way up through the nonprofit and now takes care of people who are in the same place she was all those years ago.

"I feel like I get more emotional than the applicant sometimes because it just kind of brings me back to that was me one time," Alvarado said. "I can relate to the stress or the happy moments."

There are about a hundred people on the waiting list. But, Alvarado urges everyone that qualifies to take the time to sign up.

"It is a long process, but it is definitely worth it. I've been in my home for 17 years, but I'm not going to sell it. Right now is a good time to sell, but no matter what money I get, it's not worth it—seeing your house built from the bottom up and knowing that you did work on it. It's like, wow, to me, it was like I did it. If I did this, I can do anything."

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