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Paid in first -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Paid in first

Pioneering Habitat homeowners who have finished paying their mortgages reflect on their ownership experiences.
By Shala Carlson


Myra Harris and her two grandsons, 5-year-old Jordan Platts and 13-year-old Stacey Bronson, sit together on the back steps of her Habitat house. Photo by Ezra Millstein


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Myra Harris had two thoughts when she took a match to her mortgage on a December day in 2002.

Standing on the stage of the Jacksonville, Fla., convention center for a celebration of her achievement and the local affiliate’s building efforts, the bank employee and mother of three watched in wonder as her paid-in-full Habitat mortgage burned away to almost nothing.

“You thank God you were able to do it,” she says. “And then your next feeling is ‘Next month, I don’t have to pay a mortgage! I don’t owe anybody anything on this house!’”

That feeling, she confides, hasn’t faded in the years since. “You want to cry. You want to shout. And at the end of every day, you just thank God.”

Harris was the first Habitat Jacksonville homeowner to complete her mortgage payments. In doing so, she is part of an international Habitat for Humanity family—a family that grows larger with each passing day.

With Habitat, there is always the excitement of new construction and renovation projects getting under way, the grit of sweat-equity tasks, the sweet satisfaction of dedication day. But there is also the journey completed, the joy of the moment when the last payment is made and the deed is handed over.

From Jacksonville to Ghana to Kyrgyzstan, these collected stories and quotes celebrate some of the families to complete that Habitat cycle. They are among the first. As walls continue to go up and more and more families are sheltered through Habitat’s work, they will certainly not be the last.

“The day I received my Habitat home was the day I began living,” says Francisco Mendoza, who built his Habitat house in the late 1970s in Aguacatan, a city set in the Western highlands of Guatemala. “I had been helped out of a poor and desperate living situation and lifted into a world where I could provide a coffee for a friend, a bed for my elderly and ill mother, and space for my children to study and play. My family could eat together, laugh together and enjoy time together.

“Our Habitat home and new life gave my children hope and led them to new opportunities,” he continues. “As a result, most of my children live near me in their own homes and have built a community around me.”

That idea of community is key to the Habitat experiences of so many homeowner families. In Houston, Dorothy Howard found more than simply a decent place to live.

When she moved into her Habitat house just before Christmas Eve 1988, the volunteers who had worked alongside her helped her move boxes and even personally donated bunkbeds so that the eight grandchildren she was raising at the time would have places to sleep. In the three-bedroom apartment they had all been sharing, they just “slept on top of each other,” she says.

Because of the holiday, the house’s gas service had yet to be connected. “The house was so well-insulated,” Dorothy recalls, “we didn’t even get cold.” But cooking was another matter. And so one of the volunteers went home and collected his wife’s electric skillets and crock pots so that Dorothy could prepare her holiday meals. It’s a gesture that has stayed with her through the years.

“I had never known people like them,” she says. “That’s when I truly realized what real Christianity was—and the love that people can have for total strangers.”

Dorothy made her last mortgage payment this past summer. Her house has hosted five generations of Howards. She’s gotten to know the other families that live on Waco Street and proclaims that she has “the best neighborhood in Houston.”

“We look out for each other,” she says. “I never thought that ever the day would come that I would be able to pay off and say the home is mine. I’m as excited and as proud of my house today as I was 20 years ago. I never dreamed it possible.”



Ludmila Borishevskaya and her neighbors took out a collective Habitat loan to improve the roof of their dilapidated Kyrgyz condominium. Photo courtesy Habitat E/CA


Ludmila Borishevskaya thought dreaming was maybe all she would ever be able to do.

In 2008, the 65-year-old pensioner lived alone in a small studio in the Dostuk condominium complex in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The gray apartment building on the outskirts of the capital city was constructed during the Soviet era and had seen no maintenance for 20 years.

In spring, snow melted on the deteriorating roof, running down into the apartments below. In winter, when additional heaters were used in an effort to keep homes warms, residents experienced frequent power outages due to faulty wiring. “Living in those poor conditions, when the roof and the walls leaked, making everything around wet, was terrible,” Ludmila shares. “I could only dream of a renovation. At times, life seemed to me a chain of impenetrable misery.”

She tried to save money to improve her apartment, but her monthly income of US$80 made the task impossible. Besides, the whole complex called for intervention, with its leaking roofs, desolate stairs and dilapidated entrances.

In 2008, however, Ludmila and her fellow residents learned about Habitat Kyrgyzstan and its partnerships with tenants’ associations, offering affordable loans to upgrade buildings by overhauling roofs and stairs and installing new pipes.

Shortly after the residents of Dostuk decided to take out a collective Habitat loan for these types of improvements, Ludmila also qualified for a personal loan to make improvements to her apartment. She has replaced old windows, hung new wallpaper, and added a kitchen and a toilet. In just one year, she was able to pay her loan back, becoming the first of the condominium’s 200 inhabitants to do so. She’s now working on paying her part of the collective loan for the renovation of the building’s roof and stairs and is saving for a refrigerator.

“I am very happy that my life has taken a positive turn from now on,” Ludmila says. “All these changes were possible due to Habitat.”

When Bernard Botwe first learned about Habitat in 1986, he was living in his family home in Central Ghana with his parents and his two siblings and their children.

He wanted a home of his own so badly that he was willing to postpone a very important event. “My wife still recalls that I denied her a honeymoon after our wedding because I told her I needed to work for a place we could call our home.”

Instead of honeymooning with his new wife, Joanna, Botwe would get up early every morning to make sure that all of the building equipment was ready onsite. He would work from daybreak to sunset, digging dirt and hauling water to be mixed with concrete to make building blocks, creating foundation trenches, learning how to roof. “The excitement that was associated with the initial works was so overwhelming,” he recalls.

Botwe now works as a hospital administrator. He paid his mortgage in less than the allotted 10 years, for his own family’s sake but also for others who were waiting to build their own Habitat homes. “We really felt relieved indeed because my family felt that we needed to pay back early so that other people could also benefit,” he explains.

“Our word to starters,” he adds, “is please, go all out for it. Devote as much time as possible to join hands with others to raise shelters for yourselves, for the Habitat philosophy is still the best.”



Harris says her deck has always been her favorite thing about her home. Photo by Ezra Millstein


Back in Jacksonville, Myra Harris remembers the year of work she and her daughters spent with volunteers, rehabbing her Habitat house. The house had been donated to Habitat by a local church, and Myra walked alongside as it was relocated to her lot and set on her foundation. Painting and renovations followed.

She hasn’t changed much about the house since then, putting in a new set of front steps and recently getting a new roof. The small deck outside is still her favorite spot. “I go out on my deck sometimes and just sit,” she says. “You can just sit there and breathe—that’s the only way I can describe it. You can just go out, you sit under the umbrella, and you just breathe.”

Katerina Bezgachina and Gina Spigarelli contributed to this story.