When a friend encouraged Karla Alvarado Martinez to apply for homeownership through Evergreen Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds and rehabilitates homes in Clark County, Martinez didn’t think it was possible.
“The first response I had was, ‘I don’t think so because I’m a single mom,’” she told The Columbian in Spanish. “My salary wouldn’t be enough to buy a house, especially in Vancouver, which is really expensive.”
A lawyer from Nicaragua, Martinez moved to Vancouver with her daughter in 2018 after social protests plunged her home country into chaos. She got a job cleaning rooms at a residence for seniors, thinking cleaning was the only job for a Latina immigrant, she said.
Now, after working hard to find more opportunities and provide for her 15-year-old daughter, Martinez is an assistant special education teacher at Endeavor Elementary School.
She and her daughter share a bedroom in the basement of a house that she rents from a friend. Space is tight, and the plumbing doesn’t always work, but Martinez didn’t complain.
Then, she heard about Johnson Village, an Evergreen Habitat subdivision for nine low-income families being constructed on Northeast 32nd Street beside the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in east Vancouver.
Martinez said she had little hope of being accepted into Johnson Village, but when she received the application packet, it was in Spanish.
“It could be a sign,” she remembers thinking.
She filled out the application upon her daughter’s insistence. A few months later, she learned she’d been chosen as a Habitat homeowner.
“I started to cry because it was a dream that I never thought I would achieve,” Martinez said.
Trust and equity
Construction on Johnson Village began earlier this fall. Families will likely be moving in in summer 2023, Evergreen Habitat Construction Manager Mark Haley said.
The subdivision is the organization’s first community land trust, owned by the Habitat Home Trust, meaning homeowners lease the land rather than owning it. If a homeowner chooses to move out, Habitat ensures the house is sold to another low-income family, keeping it permanently affordable. Homeowners still build equity, but through a more complicated calculation, Family Services Manager Melissa Edwards said.
The application process for Habitat homes can get competitive. Homebuyers qualify for mortgages based on credit and income.
“In that respect, it is like a traditional mortgage,” Edwards said. “However, we do have softer requirements.”
The organization forgives some credit blemishes, and families must stay within a certain income range to qualify. Homeowners repay their mortgages through an affordable payment plan and participate in financial educational classes.
Once families get past the credit and income screenings, they are interviewed and scored based on criteria, such as homeownership readiness and need, Edwards explained.
The homes are built from the ground up by volunteers and future Habitat homeowners themselves, who must complete hours of “sweat equity” — 250 hours for a one-adult household and 500 for a two-adult household — as part of their homeownership requirements.
Those hours can be fulfilled through activities, such as building at the construction site, volunteering at the Clark County Habitat Store or administrative office, and helping with outreach and events.
Martinez said she is happy to complete her hours.
“It’s a form of saying thank you,” she said. “Not only to Habitat but to the donors and to the volunteers more than anyone, because we can have Habitat, we can have the money, but without volunteers building the houses, this couldn’t happen.”
A small community
On a cold, rainy morning in early November, future Johnson Village homeowner Stephanie Sutton-Davis helped build a wall at the construction site. Like Martinez, Sutton-Davis and her husband thought homeownership was out of reach.
“Before I got pregnant, our goal was to get married, buy a house and have a kid,” she said.
They got married and had a son. But while looking for a home in 2018, Sutton-Davis suffered from heart failure and needed a heart transplant.
“They told me I was about two hours from dying,” she said. “Luckily, my body came back, and we figured out it was due to being pregnant and having a baby.” She got a new heart on Mother’s Day that year.
With medical bills piling up, buying a home became too expensive for the young family.
“Our living situation is old military housing. Upkeep in the apartment is bad, and there’s mold that you cannot get out of the walls. Just a whole bunch of different issues,” she said.
So when Sutton-Davis found out that Habitat helps with mortgages, she decided to apply.
“The process is long, but it’s worth it in the end,” she said. “To have a house that is income fixed, where our monthly mortgage will not go above a certain amount ever, is incredible.”
Martinez has met several of her Johnson Village neighbors, a diverse group that includes immigrants, refugees and a veteran. She said she’s looking forward to living in a community of friendly people like Sutton-Davis.
“In the end, we’re going to live in a small community of nine houses, of nine families,” Martinez said. “I think we all have the right and the duty to respect each other, and I think we’ve achieved that.”
Sometimes, Martinez misses her home and family in Nicaragua. She wants to go back to visit, she said, “to breathe in the smell of the earth there, eat Nicaraguan foods — queso frito, gallo pinto.”
But she plans to keep living in the U.S., where she feels she and her daughter have been fortunate to find the opportunities they sought when they left Nicaragua.
“This country has opened its arms to me,” Martinez said. “In the case of Habitat, to give immigrants and single moms the opportunity to own a home is incredible.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.