By Julia Sellers
For 10 years, Anaji Hessne kept applying and getting rejected for a Habitat for Humanity house. Her husband, Aman, told her to give up.
Hessne and her family were living in government housing, but it didn’t fit the traditional image of substandard living conditions that Habitat aims to eliminate. The Hessnes’ NewHolly neighborhood of 1,400 housing units had tree-lined streets, with parks, a public library and other amenities.
Though it was much more attractive than many such housing projects, it did not belong to the Hessnes. And so, Anaji persevered, applying year after year with Habitat for Humanity of Seattle/South King County.
“We’d have (the affiliate) come and visit and they’d say, ‘But your house is so big.’ But it wasn’t my house. It was (the) government’s house,” she said about their apartment, which was created by the Seattle Housing Authority through a federal housing grant.
As an emigrant from East Africa, Anaji said she couldn’t look at her three children — Naguo, 18, Ebbsio, 12, and Bariiaa, 7 — and tell them that life in NewHolly was as good as it gets.
“I wanted one bedroom of my own,” Hessne said.
In 2010, Hessne received the all-clear from Seattle/King County Habitat, and it was time to celebrate. This summer, the family will move into their own home.
“For 12 years, all I’ve wanted was my own home,” she said. “It’s my future, it’s my kids’ future and something for my grandkids.”
Just 30 minutes away, in the La Fortuna community of Renton, Washington, Yesenia Barahona faced a similar battle. The El Salvador native immigrated to the Seattle area in 2005.
As a catering chef for a major software company, Barahona made enough to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in a community she chose so her daughter, Daniela Joachin, 13, could attend a good public school. But as the cost-of-living in the Seattle suburbs increased, Barahona moved her daughter into her bedroom to rent out the second room and make ends meet.
“It’s an old apartment — nothing fancy,” she said. “I’m paying more than what I can, but it’s for my daughter and for our safety.”
In the past year, the average monthly rent in King County has increased 3.1 percent to $1,049, according to Dupre + Scott Apartment Advisors, an agency that reports on housing conditions in the Seattle area. In Seattle, 22.7 percent of renters are classified as “severely burdened” by the 2011 Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, meaning the household spends more than half its income on rent and utilities.
A flier on a bulletin board at work led Barahona to the East King County Habitat affiliate and the idea that she wouldn’t have to share a room with a teenager.
“When I saw the pamphlet four years ago, I decided to go to a meeting and got the long application,” she said. “I tried four times before I was accepted.”
Barahona’s home is part of a duplex that was turned back over to the affiliate from a former partner family. The community consists of 12 homes built around 2001.
“I know that only God can do this for me,” she said through tears. “My daughter’s embarrassed to bring friends home and say that she shares a room with her mother. Everybody’s had their fingers crossed for me.”
Even with no home to build, Barahona’s filtered her sweat equity work hours into others’ homes and in the affiliate’s office.
During May’s AmeriCorps Build-a-Thon, Barahona worked alongside members to place walls for someone else’s town home.
“I feel like an idiot because I don’t know how to use a hammer,” she said with a laugh, “but they teach you how. “
“In this world there are so many things that happen for no reason, but Habitat (volunteers) put their time and life to work for others. It’s hard to think that work is for people like me, and they don’t ask for anything in return.”
This summer, Barahona and her family will move into a home of their own.
Julia Sellers is a writer/editor in Program Communications, based in Americus, Georgia.
A New Lease on Life
“I was looking at the walls and thinking, ‘I know what the inside of those walls looks like.’ That’s what I see when I see those walls. I see what it took to get to this point.”