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Foundation for a future

Habitat for Humanity houses help some break cycle of poverty

Habitat for Humanity houses help some break cycle of poverty

May 20, 2007|By PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY-The money she made working three part-time jobs as a crossing guard, lunch aide and evening cook barely enabled single mother Cherry Hiser to pay the rent.

She was caught in a cycle of work and poverty that continued for five years before the Hagerstown woman found Habitat for Humanity of Washington County Inc., which built her a home three years ago and helped lay the foundation for her new life.

"Being a single mother and being able to afford to pay for a place to live ... It's an exciting feeling because you know you're working every day for a reason," said Hiser, who now works full time as an assembler to make the monthly no-interest mortgage payments to Habitat.

Since January 1994, Habitat has built 24 houses in Washington County, 21 of them in Hagerstown, for people such as Hiser who could not have afforded to pay for a home mortgage on their own.

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There is no shortage of residents eligible for Habitat homes because there is a shortage of affordable housing, said Sherry Brown Cooper, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Washington County Inc.

"Not enough of it is available, not enough of it has been available in the last 10 years and not enough has been done by local governments to provide affordable housing," Brown Cooper said. "People starting out with college educations and entry level jobs are not able to live in the county in which they work."

The need

In Washington County, the fair market rent for a three-bedroom apartment is $971 per month, meaning an occupant would need to earn $38,840 per year to afford the rent, Brown Cooper said.

The salary amount is based on the federal government's suggestion that someone's housing burden should not exceed 30 percent of the person's annual income, she said.

Using that scale, the affordable monthly rent for a minimum-wage worker is $320. In order for a minimum-wage worker to make a $971 rent payment, he or she would need to work 121 hours per week, the equivalent of three full-time jobs, Brown Cooper said.

The federal and Maryland minimum wage is $6.15 per hour, according to the state Division of Labor and Industry and the U.S. Department of Labor.

According to the National Housing Conference, Washington County's average annual wage in 2005 for assembly line workers, auto mechanics, school bus drivers, office clerks, dental assistants and child-care workers, among several others, was less than $35,000 per year.

"They're living out of the county, they're working multiple jobs and there are kids in these families who suffer," Brown Cooper said. "The cycle keeps providing these social behaviors."

There is assistance offered to some low-income residents through the Housing Authority of Washington County, which owns 172 public housing units, 24 of which are single-family detached homes or town houses, said Stephen O'Brien, accounting officer for the housing authority.

Waiting lists to get into public housing here were 195 people deep in March, according to information provided on the housing authority's Web site.

That same month, 441 people were on waiting lists to get Section 8 assistance from the housing authority.

Both public housing and Section 8 assistance are offered to families based on income level and need, O'Brien said. Public housing occupants pay the housing authority income-based rent for their units. Under Section 8, the housing authority pays a renter's landlord a portion of their rent, an amount that also is based on income level.

Currently, 498 people in Washington County receive Section 8 assistance, O'Brien said.

The housing authority also manages Francis Murphy Senior Apartments on Robinwood Drive, which houses income-qualified senior citizens, O'Brien said.

Francis Murphy, with 120 units, had a waiting list of 52 people in March, according to the Web site.

Preparing for a new home

Diana and Marco Delgado tried public housing, then tried to make it on their own for a few years before finding Habitat, which plans to finish a house for the family of nine by the end of the year.

The Delgados pay $750 per month for a cramped three-bedroom Hagerstown apartment, which houses the couple and seven children, ages 1 to 10. The couple had two of the children together, three of the children were fathered by Marco Delgado and they are legal guardians of the other two children.

Diana Delgado said she found Habitat through a friend. She said she was tired of living paycheck to paycheck.

"I know I'm not going to find help like this anywhere else," she said. Their house is one of two houses Habitat hopes to finish building in Hagerstown this year.

Diana, 24, works part time as a data entry clerk, and Marco, 29, works full time at a paving company.

Since being approved for a Habitat house, the couple has been working hard to pay off debts. As part of the deal, the family also has volunteered hours helping to build a home for another Habitat family.

Meanwhile, Diana Delgado is working to get her GED. Neither parent received a high school diploma.

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