Victoria Gonzales, 14, has long wanted to paint her bedroom purple. But that sort of personalization isn’t allowed in an apartment building, even for teenagers who really want to put their own stamp on their surroundings.
But soon, Victoria is going to buy a can of purple paint and carry it into her family’s new house on America Street built by New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. “Finally, something to call my own,” she said.
Her sister Raquel, 13, is leaning toward blue paint for her room.
Their mother, New Orleans native Kim Gonzales, 33, closed on the four-bedroom house Wednesday and was officially given her house key in a Habitat ceremony Saturday afternoon.
Though she grew up in the heart of the city, near Dumaine and Broad streets, her family always had rented. So she felt extreme pride on Wednesday, signing her name on a mortgage.
“I think this shows my kids that you don’t give up on something that’s a little out of your reach. You just have to push a little harder,” she said.
To ensure that the new homeowners’ monthly payments are within their means, Habitat provides all of its qualified, low-income homebuyers with no-interest loans.
Gonzales, who works at a bank, was impressed to discover that her monthly house-note payment would be $544, which includes insurance. “It’s unbelievable,” she said. “That’s less than what I paid in rent each month.”
After she’d signed all of her loan documents Wednesday, Gonzales took her four children to see the house for the first time. “They were ecstatic,” she said.
That excitement was still evident Saturday before the Habitat ceremony.
Her son Blake, 10, ran toward the side door, skipped down the steps and twirled on the grass, his arms outstretched. “See?” he said, gleefully. “We have space to play.”
Gonzales has visions of a garden filled with herbs on the side of the house. She also loves the second bathroom that connects to her bedroom, and she has fantasies about occasionally locking herself in there, just to get some privacy in a house full of kids.
Though the house was empty Saturday, Gonzales’ youngest son, Daniel, 6, was content to lean against a wall in the front room and play a video game with Mark Andrews, who is 7 and will soon be living in the house next door.
Mark’s mother, Clarice Woods, works as a housekeeper in an apartment complex in Metairie and is taking night classes in medical coding at Delgado Community College. “But now, if my mama has to work, one of my neighbors might watch me,” Mark said.
Gonzales also is taking night classes at Delgado, in culinary arts, and has dreams of owning her own food truck someday.
In recent months, as Gonzales learned to hang sheetrock and worked on other parts of her house to complete Habitat’s required number of “sweat equity” hours, she forged friendships with Woods and the rest of her neighbors.
In all, 10 families received keys Saturday for homes on the block, including Joseph and Amy Washington, who are expecting their first child; Ashley and Terrence King and their five sons; Meagan Jordan and her son, who is 9; Denise Price and her four children; Stephanie Bruer and her three girls; Cecille Weathersby and her three children; grandmother Rose LaFrance, who helps out with her five grandchildren; and Oscar and Michelle Oliney, who have three grown children and two teenage sons who will live with them on America Street.
Thanks to lots it got from the New Orleans Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Authority of New Orleans, Habitat has, since Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago, completed 51 houses in this part of eastern New Orleans, a 24-block area bounded by Chef Menteur Highway, Dwyer Road, America Street and Ray Avenue. Six more are under construction.
In place of empty lots, a proud new community has sprung up. On Saturday, Michelle Oliney handed out cold drinks from a cooler on her front porch and bragged about how tightly her new house was sealed. “There are no cracks anywhere in this house,” she said. “No roaches can get in here.”
Gonzales laughed as she walked down the street, waving at neighbors along the way.
Together, the families are determined to improve the park down the street, where the equipment is old and rundown, she said. Earlier in the week, they all had pitched in to mow an overgrown lot.
“This is our neighborhood now,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales also had promised her children a community of playmates. And they’re ready for that.
“I think in that brown house, there are three kids my age,” said Blake, figuring his life will be a kids’ paradise now.
“I feel like we’re going to have a lot of sleepovers and play dodgeball all day,” he said with a grin.