After more than a decade sharing a small trailer with his mother, Manuel Vielma and his wife, Maricela, decided it was time to move their three kids out of hardscrabble Rancho Vista, the sprawling Guadalupe County neighborhood on San Marcos’ eastern edge.
They figured they had a decent shot at finding a home they could afford, even if it was something humble, even if it required a little work, or a lot of it. Manuel has held down a steady job in the city’s wastewater department for 8½ years, and the couple has managed to stay out of major debt and even save a little when possible.
They soon discovered their dream of home ownership was out of reach, anyway.
“We looked at two or three places that we thought we could fix up and make a home. But it was just impossible. I thought we had pretty good credit but even with just a few little things, no one would loan us the money,” Manuel Vielma said.
Late last year, the couple heard that Habitat for Humanity San Marcos was looking for a family to help build its newest project, the fifth and final house in the 1500 block of Belvin Street. The Vielmas put in an application and were approved.
Using $70,000 in federal grant money allocated by the San Marcos City Council in 2007, Habitat San Marcos bought a little more than an acre of wooded property on Belvin. In the years since, the organization has transformed a condemned, ramshackle trailer park into a row of charming Craftsman-style cottages, each occupied by a family that probably could not otherwise afford to own a house.
After putting in more than their mandatory 200 hours of “sweat equity” building their house alongside volunteers, the Vielmas will officially take the keys to the cheery, cream-colored house during a ceremony on Saturday. Manuel Vielma says his family can’t wait to move in, especially 4-year-old Gabby.
“Every day when we pick her up from school, she wants to drive by the house just to see it,” Manuel said.
In addition to dedicating the Vielma home, the ceremony this weekend will mark completion of the final house constructed under the leadership of longtime Habitat San Marcos board president Glenn Wier, who took the helm of the organization in 2007 from former president Ronda A. Reagan. Under his administration, the organization has built eight homes, a number that grows by at least one a year and sometimes two. In the process, Habitat San Marcos has revitalized pockets of the Westover, Dunbar and Millview East neighborhoods.
While mortgage lenders are slowly easing up a bit on credit and down payment requirements, the Vielmas are far from the only working family who cannot qualify for a conventional home loan from financial institutions still smarting from the calamitous real estate bust of 2008. Even government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration, which insures higher-risk mortgages for often first-time homeowners, have tightened down considerably on the loans they are willing to underwrite.
In September, homebuyers who landed bank loans had an an average FICO score of 758 (out of a possible 850) compared to an average of 762 in September 2012, according to an analysis by Ellie Mae, a California mortgage software company. That is a measurable improvement, but not too much help for the majority of Texans who, as of Nov. 1, have an average FICO score of 624.
Habitat for Humanity does not give away houses, incoming board president Phil Hutchinson is quick to say, but it does offer no-interest, 20-year loans to qualifying, low-income people.
“If you haven’t been taking care of your credit rating or building a solid work history, you’re not going to qualify for Habitat,” Hutchinson said. “But it’s a good opportunity for families that have been working toward home ownership but have a credit rating that is not quite good enough for conventional financing.”
In addition to sweet credit terms, Habitat San Marcos sells its houses at a fraction of their value on the open market, something it can do because of thousands of donated labor hours from laymen and professionals alike. A crew of professionals that include homebuilder Tom Taber of Vista Homes, construction foreman Larry Brotzman and architect Pax Chagnon, allow Habitat to build inviting houses at minimal cost. Donated and discounted construction material from local suppliers help, too.
“Hundreds of volunteers worked on this home for the past eight months,” Wier said.
With its Belvin Street property fully built out, Habitat San Marcos is now looking for lots on which to build its next homes. It will be helped again in the property purchase by the city’s Community Development Block Grant program, which last year put up another $32,000 to acquire land.
— Brad Rollins, San Marcos Mercury
Habitat for Humanity San Marcos
P.O. Box 1594
San Marcos, TX 78667