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Local group revitalizing area through homeownership initiatives

Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2013 9:10 PM

By Justin Phillips / American Press

Over the last few years, hope was in short supply for Chris Royal. On the worst days, he leaned on his wife. She told him everything would work out. He didn’t see how it would. From the student loan payments to the medical bills to the creditors calling, life, at that moment, was a mess.

He knew those student loans weren’t going anywhere and the medical bills would only get worse. The credit score? Maybe a few changes here or there could make a difference, but not much. Chris needed stability for his wife and his two sons. This would begin with owning a home.

Fast-forward a little over a year. The delinquent bills are gone; the student loans are taken care of; and the medical bills are a fraction of what they were. His credit is better than it’s ever been. Most important, he’s a first-time homeowner with a recently finished three-bedroom, two-bath house on South Cherry Street. Chris moved in Friday afternoon.

“Honestly, the whole process didn’t take that long, if you think about it,” Royal said as he stepped around the boxes in his living room. “If you follow the process where each month you tackle two bills and just chip away at everything, you can get here.”

The process is a meticulous one created by the Lake Charles-based nonprofit Project Build A Future. The group’s mission is to revitalize an area north of Broad Street through homeownership initiatives. The nonprofit is young, but its influences can be seen in north Lake Charles.

The Fields Subdivision on Phillip Court, for example, is where 35 homes were built under the Alternative Housing Pilot Program funded by FEMA between 2009 and 2012 in response to Hurricane Rita. Project Build A Future didn’t have a hand in the construction of the homes, but it was in charge of finding qualified tenants to fill them. To date, nearly half of the homes have been purchased by their residents.

“The people at Project Build A Future, they talk to you, they keep you up because, I’m telling you, there were times, man,” Royal said as he leaned against his kitchen counter. “They don’t sugarcoat things there. They make sure you get done what you’re supposed to get done.”

To qualify for a home built by Project Build A Future, applicants must earn less than 80 percent of the area’s median income per U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines. Applicants must have a minimum annual income of $22,000 and be able to afford house notes of $450 to $650 per month. They then must complete a homebuyer education course and put in 100 volunteer hours in the local community. With all of the financial work the program does with its applicants, the homeowners will have $25,000-$50,000 in equity in their homes at the time of purchase. The houses that are built through the program are valued at about $100,000.

Project Build A Future encourages the homeowners, once approved for purchasing, to pick what goes in the homes. Everything from the lighting in the kitchen to the paint accents along the ceilings get selected by the owners.

“We picked the floors. I did the colors, my wife picked out the tiles,” Royal said as he pointed around his new place. His new Whirlpool gas stove still had a sticker from the store near its digital clock. “They don’t use cheap stuff to build it. You’re involved the whole way, and it really is quality work. I’m telling you, these people were a godsend.”

Nicole Miller is the executive director for Project Build A Future. Whether it was rehabilitating the homeless in Atlanta in 1996 or teaching journalism in Africa a few years later, her life path has been the same, helping the local community. Miller said she hasn’t really had a chance to sit down and think about the effect the nonprofit is having on the city as whole, but she does see the effects on regular, everyday people.

“For some of the people we work with, they’re unbanked, they’re unsupported and there are times where the problems feel insurmountable for them,” Miller said. “We’re there with them every step of the way because we believe in them. When we hand them the keys to their new place, we hug them, but we don’t say bye.”

Miller said the nonprofit is working along the “broken window” theory in north Lake Charles. It’s an idea that if a building in a neighborhood has a few broken windows that don’t get fixed, people will just keep breaking more windows — only making things worse. For Miller, her plan is to work this theory in reverse. An example can be seen in the fall festival the organization throws in the Fields Subdivision. Residents are encouraged to come out, meet one another and become more acquainted. Through this, a familiarity is built and residents are more comfortable policing and looking after one another.

“We want to keep north Lake Charles on the map. It’s not to be feared, and there are opportunities here,” Miller said. “With the economic boom that’s coming to the city, we want to make sure that the good things that are happening in other parts of the area are happening here as well.”

The houses the nonprofit builds from the ground up range from two-bedroom, 1 1/2- to two-bathroom houses to the new construction plans for three-bedroom, two-bath models. To date, Project Build A Future has poured $1.8 million into the construction of homes from the ground up. As a nonprofit group, Project Build A Future is constantly looking not only for donors, but for business partners interested in rejuvenating north Lake Charles.

“The reality is that with every house we build, we lose money, but our business plan works for us as a nonprofit. It wouldn’t work for a for-profit business,” Miller said. “What we are is an asset to anyone who thinks they’ll never own a place of their own. We want people with dreams and we want the dreamers who to help them to join this program.”

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