Written by Dana Bartholomew, Los Angeles Daily News
SANTA CLARITA — Each Saturday for three years, former U.S. Marine Cpl. Juan Pablo Sirri and his wife, Stephany, would sling hammers, pipe wrenches and sweat to help build their four-bedroom Santa Clarita house.
Amid driving rain Saturday, they joined the families of 26 U.S. service men and women to be handed keys to nearly finished duplexes thanks to the first affordable Habitat for Humanity housing built for U.S. veterans.
“Words can’t describe the feeling and emotion of finally seeing this house come to life,” said Sirri, 28, of West Hills, an Iraq combat veteran standing next to his wife and 4-month-old daughter Valentina, their new garage wrapped in a bright red bow. “In California, we wouldn’t be able to afford a house.
“This is a house from the man upstairs.”
During rare July downpours courtesy of Tropical Cyclone Dolores, hundreds of officials and hopeful veterans and families gathered in a tent to hail the first of three Habitat for Humanity San Fernando/Santa Clarita Valleys housing projects being built in Santa Clarita.
The 78 homes, built in three phases to be finished early next year, allow veterans to achieve the American Dream. The $22.3 million housing, financed by the California Department of Veterans Affairs and private donors, also serve as a national model for affordable housing and supportive services.
The CalVet Residential Enriched Neighborhood Program, with sweat equity supplied by Habitat for Humanity veterans, offers affordable home ownership with low loan payments and family enrichment services to California veterans and their families.
The Habitat for Humanity SF/SCV nonprofit built a dozen such homes last year in Sylmar, is completing 78 homes in Santa Clarita, and will soon break ground for 50 homes for veterans in Palmdale. The homes are built with support from private donors, local banks and businesses.
The first 26 homes in the community of Saugus sell for $286,000, for which each veteran family will pay a third of their income. The average mortgage, taxes and insurance will cost each veteran $1,560 a month — $144 less than the average one-bedroom apartment.
Behind the beige cluster of homes next to Bowman High School on Center Pointe Parkway was a newly built playground marked with Stars and Stripes.
“We’re here for a celebration,” said Donna E. Deutchman, CEO for Habitat for Humanity SF/SCV, based in Woodland Hills, told the estimated 300 guests and small army of Habitat volunteers and supporters. “We are very proud. And the veterans are very proud of what they’ve done.”
As veterans of the Iraq, Afghanistan and other campaigns struggle to reintegrate into civilian society, the local Habitat for Humanity devised the Enriched Neighborhood Model to help meet their needs.
Along with each home, services for vets include classes on budgeting, managing credit, home repair and understanding insurance, along with veteran specific help that include post traumatic stress disorder counseling.
“This is something that the vets earned: they put in 500 hours of sweat equity to do this. CalVet may have made the loans, but they did the work,” said Debbie Endsley, acting secretary for CalVet. “It’s just awe-inspiring. I’m almost overwhelmed.”
It took more than 10,000 volunteer hours by veterans families to build the 26 homes, officials say.
The Santa Clarita Key Ceremony was joined by Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale; Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita; Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-Arleta and Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean.
“This is a dream,” said Knight, a U.S. Army veteran. “This takes care of the families that take care of us.”
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” said Wilk. “This model, the first in the nation, I hope will be repeated across the country.”
Among the veterans was Army Capt. Leah McGowan, a single mother now serving in the National Guard. Each day, she commutes from her rented home in Rancho Cucamonga to her Army social service job in Lancaster.
On Sept. 1, she expects to set up house in Santa Clarita with her 21-year old son LeJon, and her boyfriend Jim Jamal Fletcher, a U.S. Army Airborne combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.
“I’m very excited,” said McGowan, dressed in her combat fatigues. “It means everything. Without this program, I would never have the opportunity for home ownership at all.”
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