Local group revitalizing area through homeownership initiatives

By 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.”