ST. GEORGE — As rent prices soar, so can the difficulty for some families to find affordable housing in Southern Utah.
Volunteers and partners with Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Utah are trying to change that by building or refurbishing affordable housing for low-income families. After 20 years, the nonprofit organization just opened its 22nd home in southwest Utah last month with a new home in Hurricane.
“This is a gift,” said Brandi Espitia-Lefler, the new homeowner of the Hurricane home. “We now have a place to bloom where we are planted.”
Habitat for Humanity prides itself in providing a “hand up” and not a “hand out” to families in need, said Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Utah executive director Linda Baker.
“When people are in a home without worrying about things like high rent, they can plan for the future,” Baker said. “We’ve had people go back to school and one person took the opportunity to start their own business.”
To be eligible for a home from Habitat for Humanity, families have to make 30-80 percent of the average annual income in Washington County.
It’s not a free house by any means, Baker said. Every adult in the family receiving a home from Habitat for Humanity needs to put 250 sweat-equity hours into the construction of the house. They also pay a mortgage with zero percent interest to pay off the building costs as well.
Melinda Falaniko, a mother who moved to St. George from Hawaii six years ago, became the owner of a home refurbished by Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Utah after struggling to find a place big enough for her family. Falaniko has eight children between the ages of two and 13.
“We were living in just a smaller place before – you make do with what you have,” Falaniko said. “Two months later, we got a call to come to a certain address with the kids and it was our new home. They surprised us.”
Falaniko said she was five months pregnant when she started to work toward the sweat-equity hours on her new home. Her husband helped when he could, but he was working long hours at his job, she said.
Volunteers worked with Falaniko and her family to lay tile, knock down walls, paint, redo plumbing and place stucco on the outside of the home. Falaniko’s children even helped with projects like doing the landscaping around the home.
“My home is so much more important to me because that’s my sweat that I put in there,” Falaniko said. “I know what’s behind that wall and where that pipe leads or whatever. It was a really neat experience.”
Knowing the mortgage payments Falaniko pays to Habitat for Humanity go toward a good cause makes her feel even better about her home as well, she said.
“The mortgage actually goes back to Habitat, so they can continue to build and continue to do the help they are doing for other families,” Falaniko said.
The ones who benefit the most from a stable home environment are the children, Baker said.
“Children just thrive better when they know they’re going to be staying in a home,” Baker said. “They’re going to have friends and be in the school without having to interrupt that constantly with moving.”
Falaniko’s children have also grown and improved since her family moved into the home, she said.
“It makes such a huge difference on their confidence and the way they carry themselves,” Falaniko said. “They’re more driven and more close to the community.”
Community members interested in helping Habitat for Humanity can volunteer with the building homes or the organization’s ReStore thrift store at 835 S Bluff Street in St. George.
There will also be a casino-themed fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity on May 5 at the St. George Hilton Garden Inn.
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