Laura Rosales stood this weekend outside her new home in East Austin that she poured sweat and tears into helping build for 11 Saturdays this spring.
Rosales, a dispatcher for a tow truck company, has been living paycheck to paycheck for years, struggling to pay rent. Recently, she reached out to Habitat for Humanity for help, with the dream of one day owning her own home. On Saturday, she got the keys to her new house on Boyle Drive in the Scenic Point community and will move in this fall.
Her neighborhood east of U.S. 183 will eventually have 67 homes for families who will pay an affordable mortgage, but it could be the last of its kind that Habitat for Humanity will build in Austin, as land prices continue to soar throughout the city.
The house, a sky blue and orange single-story bungalow, will comfortably fit her and her five children, who have spent the past year cramped in a two-bedroom, two-bath duplex as they tucked away savings.
"I'm excited to get the kids settled in," Rosales said at a dedication ceremony in the neighborhood on Saturday. "I think it's a great start to the beginning of a new school year, along with the first of many great things in store for us."
Rosales' was one of six Habitat-built homes in Scenic Point included in the dedication, which welcomed volunteers from 120 companies and corporations that devoted time, money and energy to building the houses.
Austin Habitat for Humanity CEO Phyllis Snodgrass said a board member donated the $1 million to buy the land for Scenic Point, but since that time, the cost for lots in Austin have skyrocketed, with those on the lower end costing as much as $125,000 and, on the higher end, $850,000 in some areas.
"You can't build an affordable house on a lot at that price," Snodgrass said. "While it doesn't mean that we will never build single-family homes again, I don't see it happening in the inner city. We are going to have to figure out ways to put more home on less land."
Habitat for Humanity in recent years has had to switch tactics, focusing instead on building multi-family housing, like the 50-unit condominium going up at Fourth and Onion streets in East Austin near the Plaza Saltillo commuter rail station. Projects like these will provide what Snodgrass calls "missing middle housing," including townhouses, row houses and condos for low-income and working families, such as teachers, musicians and firefighters.
"That's a broader range than we have served in the past, and it's just needed because of the cost of housing here," Snodgrass said. "Some people making 100% of the median family income still can't afford an affordable home."
In its 34 years, Austin Habitat has built more than 450 single-family homes, enlisting more than 8,000 volunteers a year. Families seeking help have to meet three requirements:
• They have to demonstrate need, meaning they spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing or live in overcrowded or substandard conditions.
• They have to be able to pay the mortgage.
• They have to contribute "sweat equity," meaning they have to help build theirs and their neighbors' homes.
Rosales said she started this spring by building her neighbor Jessica's house, coming out early in the mornings to paint, stain fences and install foam insulation, before she shifted to working on her own home.
"You pick up all these skills and learn all these new things, and you are like, 'Oh wow, I actually know how to build a house,'" Rosales said. "It was a really good experience, and it's something you can take with you after this if you decide you maybe want to do some things to your own home."
A consortium of Methodist churches in the Austin area helped Rosales build her house. Other churches, organizations and companies like Kendra Scott, Bumble and the Austin Business Journal helped build the other five.
Habitat for Humanity vice president of construction Billy Whipple said the volunteer labor saves them about $40,000 for each house, as well as other costs from donations for building materials.
Praxent, a digital innovation agency that builds custom software for service companies, gave $25,000 for materials after reaching an unexpected financial goal last year. It also sent 30 of its employees for four days to help build the homes.
"It was an incredibly rewarding experience for everybody involved," Praxent founder Tim Hamilton said.
Whipple estimates each home in Scenic Point costs around $100,000 to build, plus $40,000 for the lot.
The homeowners, who are all required to take a financial planning course, will pay a low-cost, 30-year mortgage and taxes on their property, though the taxes are lower than is typical because a deed restriction requires that the home remain affordable and cannot be sold at the market rate.
For Rosales, that amounts to a $995 monthly payment for a five-bedroom, two-bath house.
"It provides stability, and at least I can give my kids something," Rosales said, "if something ever happens to me." They will "still be able to live here and take care of themselves," she added.
"And maybe, if need be, it will help out to begin their family or if they decide to further their education, they have a place to stay and not have to worry about those extra struggles of having to pay rent while going to school," Rosales said.
The regional chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which serves Travis, Hays, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell counties, will begin work on more homes in the Scenic Point neighborhood this fall. Sixteen have now been completed and 51 remain to be finished in the next several years. The group will soon shift its focus to new projects, with eyes on the further reaches of the city as land becomes less affordable and adopting financing tactics used by Habitat for Humanity in larger cities.
"We look like a small city but we have big-city problems," Snodgrass said. "There are lot of people moving here, getting jobs, who need homes. We are looking at every opportunity, partnering with builders and developers. To continue the traditional Habitat model to build eight homes in this neighborhood this year, it's probably going to look a little different."
Habitat for Humanity used to require that its families make no more than 60% of the median family income to qualify for a home mortgage, but it recently bumped that up to 80%, meaning more people are eligible. Additionally, the median income for a family of four in the Austin area shot up nearly 12% between 2018 and 2019, from $86,000 to $95,900, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which means a family of four now has to make $75,500 to qualify.