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Designs on a new life (part 2) -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Designs on a new life (part 2)

Members of the United Church of Marco Island surround the Mas family on dedication day in 2009. Church member Jack Hough, far right, holds the
commemorative plaque that now hangs in the church’s fellowship hall. ©Habitat for Humanity of Collier County/Jennifer Pash


Trailers like these are located within a few miles of million-dollar homes in Naples, on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast
. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein


Supply and demand

Elaine and Amable Mas came to the United States from Cuba in 1995. Most of their extended family had already left Cuba, and they couldn’t see a future there for Marcus, who was then 2.

After spending 10 years in New Jersey, where Elaine’s mom lived, they moved to Naples for better schools, a warmer climate and what they thought would be a lower cost of living.

They were right on the first two counts, and partially right on the third. Food and utilities were less expensive in Naples, but the overall cost of living was higher because of one factor: the price of housing.

The Naples-Marco Island metropolitan statistical area is one of the wealthiest in the United States — a stark contrast to nearby Immokalee.

Nevertheless, the need for affordable housing in Naples is a pressing issue. The city is home to thousands of people who work low-paying jobs that cater to tourists and to part-year residents with second homes. These jobs don’t support the high cost of owning or renting property, which has resulted in a severe shortage of affordable housing.

“We get about 1,000 applications every year, and we’re building about 100 homes a year,” Lefkow said. “That meets about 10 percent of the need.”

To make ends meet, families cram into too-small apartments, decrepit mobile homes or garages converted illegally into hazardous living spaces, where they pay $600 to $800 a month.

The Mas family paid $800 a month for their apartment in a less-than-desirable complex. The monthly mortgage payment for their Habitat home is $570 a month, which includes the principal, taxes, insurance and a homeowners association fee.

‘Break the poverty cycle somewhere’

As Habitat Collier County expanded its service area, moving the main office to Naples and keeping a satellite office in Immokalee, the church continued volunteering and fundraising on its behalf.

“This is a very giving congregation. The members are very dedicated to giving back and helping other people,” said Jack Hough, who headed the fundraising campaigns for nine of the past 11 years.

The church also values how Habitat instills pride, self-worth and confidence in its partner families, who help build their homes and others.

“We appreciate the Habitat work ethic,” said church member Richard Hearn. “It’s not a handout; it’s a hand up. The people who purchase these homes have earned it, putting in hundreds of hours of sweat equity.”

The Rev. Richard Adair, current pastor at the United Church of Marco Island, said the long-term impact on families is what keeps the church tied to Habitat.

“You break the poverty cycle somewhere,” Adair said. “If you take the kids of these families and follow them into the next generation, they’re going to be entirely different than they would have been had they still been living in some substandard rental. It makes a world of difference.”

‘Everything is better’

The impact of an affordable home is clear to the Mas family.

Elaine, who has a psychology degree from Cuba, is a receptionist in a doctor’s office but wants to go back to school eventually and work in psychology again, preferably in a role that helps children.

“For now, I am focused on getting my son through school. He has scholarships, but they don’t cover quite everything,” she said with a chuckle.

Marcus graduated with honors from Lely High School in 2010. His strong academic performance earned him a scholarship at Columbia University in New York City. Now in his second year of pre-med studies, his goal is to become a pulmonologist and treat patients suffering from respiratory tract diseases.

Elaine’s husband, Amable, has been promoted to head custodian at the high school. When they’re not working, the couple enjoys spending time outdoors, fishing and, of course, doing projects around their home.

“Our life is totally different,” Elaine said. “Everything is better. Finally, we were able to save money for Marcus’ education. And we have a beautiful home in a safe neighborhood that we love.”

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