Angelica Valencia and her family were alternating between renting a Section 8 subsidized apartment on Hatch Road and migrant worker housing in Empire when she heard of a program that could make them homeowners.
That was about two years ago.
Now, she and her husband, Froylan, and three children live in a neat, four-bedroom stucco home in the airport neighborhood in south Mo- desto. The children have their own bedrooms; there is a garage, a yard with a large garden and play set, and solar panels on the roof of the completely remodeled home.
The Valencias can thank Habitat For Humanity, the Stanislaus County Redevelopment Agency and the E.&J. Gallo Winery for their new digs -- along with their own hard work.
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The partnership between Habitat, the county and the winery is a unique and ongoing effort that came about because of the persistence of Habitat Executive Director Anita Hellam, the generosity of the Gallo family and the county's desire to improve the airport neighborhood.
Here's how the partnership was formed:
The winery owns a number of homes in the airport neighborhood. Hellam routinely combs property titles of areas in which Habitat is active, for potential homes to rehabilitate.
"I had been bugging Gallo for years," Hellam said. "All the properties I wanted were owned by Gallo."
The contacts from Habitat led Gallo to re-evaluate the homes, and to decide they weren't needed anymore, according to Susan Hensley, Gallo vice president of public relations.
Gallo family members interviewed Hellam and decided to sell the homes to Habitat at far below market value -- about one-third of market value, according to Hellam.
The county became part of the partnership through its redevelopment agency, which funds the property purchases or rehabilitation efforts, according to Nancy Brown, a county redevelopment consultant.
Habitat chooses low-income families to buy the houses on the criteria of work ethic, family stability, credit history and need. The chosen family must put 500 hours of "sweat equity" into the remodeling, Hellam said, although most spend many more hours on the home. They are joined by Habitat construction crews and volunteers who put in new windows, doors, roofing, floors, electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning.
The result is a like-new home at a greatly reduced price. The county puts a lien on the home to recoup the loan when the home is sold, Brown said.
The partnership has completed one house, has five in escrow and two almost ready for escrow, Hellam said. In addition, Gallo has donated two houses, which Habitat moved to other properties for rehabilitation.
"It's a good partnership," Brown said. "A lot of times, we can't do it on our own. This has worked out well for all of us."
Hellam said the rehabilitated houses have a positive effect on the neighborhood. People see the landscaping and paint and make an effort to clean up their yards and homes, she said.
"It's like a rock in a pond; you can see it spread."
Hensley agreed. "We think the Habitat projects will give other property owners confidence in the future of the neighborhood and lead to additional neighborhood home improvements," she said in a prepared statement.
Gallo's interest in the projects is philanthropic, Hensley said.
"We are certainly pleased with all of the positive feedback we are hearing from Habitat for Humanity, the new homeowners and the surrounding neighbors. We are just happy to be able to contribute to such a good cause," she said.
Several Gallo employees have volunteered with Habitat to work on the houses, and Gallo family members have taken a personal interest and attended dedications, Hellam said.
"Everyone who lives and works in this area benefits from these improvements to the neighborhood," Hensley said.
For the county redevelopment agency, the partnership is part of a larger plan to improve the airport neighborhood, including cleanup events and future infrastructure projects such as street lighting, curbs, gutters, and water and sewer. Those projects are about two years off, after the county finishes projects in Keyes and Empire, Brown said.
"We are trying to address as many issues as we can with the money available," Brown said. "It will involve a lot more than just pipes in the ground. We are trying to address community-based issues, crime and services."
The ultimate goal is to improve the neighborhood enough to have it annexed to Modesto, Brown said.
In the meantime, families such as the Valencias, who have a proven work ethic and a demonstrated ability to be financially responsible, are getting a chance at home ownership.
Angelica Valencia, speaking in Spanish with son Ricardo, 10, as an interpreter, said the rehabilitation process was interesting.
"I didn't know anything about construction," she said. "They showed me how to paint, nail and cut. It's nice to be in a group that feels like family."
The family had been following the crops from Florida to Washington, but wanted to settle down to get the children in a stable school situation, Hellam said. With the new home, that's been accomplished. Ricardo was given an award recently for outstanding English proficiency and is no longer in English learner classes.
His favorite part of the new house?
"I have my own room now."
He and sister Karina, 12, used to share the living room in an apartment. Karina said she also appreciates the space and privacy in the new house.
Sofia, 3, likes the back yard and the play set.
Froylan Valencia wasn't available because he works in the fields during the day and in a cannery at night. The family has to manage its money carefully because the seasonal work means the income dries up in the off-season, Hellam said.
Many more families can be helped with the partnership, she said.
"The potential is much higher," Hellam said. "I think we have only scraped the surface of this partnership."
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2349.