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Rent hikes follow storm

Covington, La.–Just about every day, Joey and Kristen Maddox load up their four children in their Dodge Caravan and find some reason to drive past Faith Village, a row of six new homes under construction by the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in St. Tammany West.


Two-year-old twins Elaine (right) and Ella Maddox (left) visit the construction site of their new Habitat house. They live in a two-bedroom rented apartment with the rest of their family, including father Joey, mother Kristen, seven-year-old brother Jourdon Pierce and six-year-old brother Jakob Tweedel. They will be moving into their new Habitat home in December of 2007.

The Maddoxes’ dream of a new home will become a reality when they close on their house in December and celebrate the Christmas season in their new home.

So far there’s nothing but a foundation and a backyard shed on the building site just off U.S. 190, but the family already sees a home.

“We’re so excited,” said Kristen. “I didn’t know if we would ever have our own house. We just kept saying, ‘Maybe one day …’ ”

Joey and Kristen, both 26, have known each other since high school, where she was an honor student and “a goody two-shoes,” the daughter of the Mandeville fire chief; Joey had a wilder side, until a near-death experience while partying turned him around.

The two have been married since December 2003. Each has a son from a previous union: Jourdon Pierce, 7, and Jakob Tweedel, 6. The couple’s twin daughters, Ella and Elaine, were born on Valentine’s Day two years ago and a new baby boy named Jack arrived in September.

“I’m ready to nest,” said Kristen.

Housing was a challenge for the young couple even before Katrina hit. Making a little too much money for any state assistance, but not enough to make ends meet, they and their children were living in a small house behind her parents’ house.

Her parents’ house, which is raised, survived the flooding, but the small guest house was ruined. Over the weeks and months that followed, the young family spent time in Texas and then in Alabama, where the kindness of strangers surprised them over and over again.

“We would be counting out change to buy gas,” Kristen said, “and somebody would come up and swipe their credit card and tell us to fill up. One man not only filled up our van, he also bought cold drinks for the kids.

“He even bought milk to put in the girls’ bottles,” she added. “They were on formula at the time, but I didn’t want to be rude.”

After witnessing such examples of the best side of human nature, the Maddoxes got a look at the other side when they returned to Louisiana and started looking for apartments.

“Even now, the same apartments that were $450 before the storm are $800,” Joey said. “With no changes, no renovations.”

The couple eventually found a small two-bedroom apartment they could barely afford. But with their second lease up and another rent increase taking effect, they’re looking for somewhere to live until their Habitat house is finished.

Joey, a self-professed salesman at heart, has worked full-time at Habitat’s ReStore in Covington for the past couple of months.

“It’s been a very warm work environment,” he said. “You get to help other people, and that’s something I enjoy doing.”

Kristen is finishing up a degree in marketing and finance at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she is an honor student.

“If we weren’t getting this Habitat house, I would have had to drop out,” she said, choking up a little. “We couldn’t support ourselves and have me go to school anymore. But I want to finish so our kids have a chance to go when they’re ready.”

The Maddoxes’ twin girls were only babies during the family’s tumultuous two-year displacement, but their sons are old enough to remember some of it, albeit with the innocence of a child’s memory.

“They call it their swimming pool vacation,” their mother said, laughing. “We kept going places with swimming pools, so that’s what they remember most. And that’s good.”