Three families get keys to new Habitat homes in East Austin

Updated April 13, 2013

The contagious excitement of three Austin families mixed with the smell of fresh paint made for a potent combination Saturday at the Austin Habitat for Humanity’s home dedication ceremony.

“I feel like I drank too much soda,” said 11-year-old Lesbeth Gomez, who bounced with energy in her new home in the Devonshire neighborhood of East Austin.

The three bright, cheerful houses that share a driveway are some of the first Habitat projects completed in 2013 with the help of donors and volunteers.

The three families received their keys on Saturday and celebrated with their friends and those involved in the building of the houses with words of thanks, gifts and food.

Three boys, the sons of Agegnehu Ambaw and Molalegn Yirsaw, streaked through their new home, running laps out the front door and around to the back, bursting with joy.

The family, originally from Ethiopia, live in a rented one-bedroom apartment.

“In the apartment, they are stuck inside, but here, they are free,” Ambaw said.

Both worked as science teachers in Ethiopia. Now, Ambaw is a certified nursing assistant and with his wife’s income, they survive on about $24,000 a year. Their new home was sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The two other homes were sponsored by Bank of America and Catholic Build, a coalition of volunteers from Catholic congregations in Austin.

To qualify for a Habitat home, a family must show steady employment and rental history, and have an income of about 60 percent of the median family income in Austin, said Stephanie Sobotik, a spokeswoman for Austin Habitat for Humanity.

For example, a family of five could make up to $49,200 a year to qualify, according to Habitat’s website.

The homes are purchased from Austin Habitat at a zero-percent interest, fixed-rate mortgage for 30 years, Sobotik said. A family puts down about $500 and then completes 300 hours building their own home and volunteering on other Habitat projects, she said.

Some Austin City Council members have stressed the need for more affordable housing, particularly after voters last fall rejected a $78.3 million bond proposal for low-income housing. A 2009 study by Denver-based BBC Research & Consulting concluded that Austin needs 40,000 more units of low-cost housing for households that earn less than $23,000 a year.

Kelly Weiss, executive director of Austin Habitat, said the loss of the bond money affects Austin Habitat’s future projects. She said she hopes another affordable housing bond initiative comes before voters soon.

Each year, Habitat builds about 25 to 30 homes and there are currently more than 50 families working toward a Habitat home, Sobotik said. By 2017, Austin Habitat hopes to complete 100 homes a year, she said.

By then, Habitat’s youngest volunteer will still be under the age limit to help build. On Saturday, 6-year-old Sonja Athey donated housewarming gifts and toys to each of the families. She collected donations online and then matched the total with her allowance.

“Not everyone has a house, not everyone lives in one,” she said, when asked why she volunteers.

Also on Saturday, Bishop Joe Vásquez of the Catholic Diocese of Austin blessed the homes and those in attendance.