Theirs, together

For years, Laura Martinez and her children have bounced from place to place, never having their own place to call home. With a bit of neighborhood help, they finally found it in Fulton.
— Laura Martinez is at a loss for words a lot these days.

For years, her life was marked by a lack of stability. She’s lived with extended family members much of the 21st century, bouncing from town to town, city to city, state to state.

There was Milwaukee; there was Burnsville. There were years in Pelican Rapids, Minn., and in Austin, Texas. Bedrooms were shared. Beds
were shared.

Martinez cared for her little sister, the youngest of 10 siblings, as she lay dying. She has been a real estate appraiser, a plumbing apprentice, a medical transcriptionist and a mail carrier. Meanwhile, she also is a single mother raising two children.

The schools David, 13, and Becca, 8, have attended is a blur. Have they been to five schools? Six? A dozen?

All of that inconsistency, Martinez hopes, is in the past. In the form of a house, stability is here.

Martinez is the first person to benefit from a new homebuyer-assistance program funded by the Fulton Neighborhood Association, a program that brings mortgages for normally expensive Southwest homes down to an affordable level. She’s one of just a small — but growing — group of homeowners in Southwest.

Just months ago, she had all but given in to the idea that at 51 years old she would have to continue living with her mother. So forgive her if she needs a bit of time, plenty of pauses and lots of deep breaths to explain how she feels about her bungalow, garage and yards on Zenith Avenue South.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” she said. “It’s just a feeling.”

* * *

Martinez was introduced to the neighborhood at the Fulton Neighborhood Association’s annual meeting in September.

She told her story to an enthralled room, and people in the audience were visibly moved. But she got the biggest rise — laughs — when she said she thought Fulton’s homebuyer incentive was a way to get people to move to a bad neighborhood.

“I really did think [the house] must have been in a not-so-great neighborhood,” Martinez said later. “Why else would they give you more money?”

The “more” she spoke of was $50,000. That’s the neighborhood association’s contribution to her mortgage.

In spring 2007, the housing committee connected with City of Lakes Community Land Trust, an organization eager to break into Southwest. The organization, which offers qualified clients significantly lowered mortgages in exchange for ownership of the land, began in neighborhoods that are stereotypically more receptive to affordable housing. But director Jeff Washburne said he encountered a fair bit of skepticism.

“A lot of neighborhoods said, ‘Great idea, Jeff, but why don’t you come on back when you’ve been able to do this in Southwest Minneapolis instead of trying to place all the affordable housing in these lower-income neighborhoods,’” Washburne said.

He listened to their requests. Over the past few years, the land trust has helped people purchase homes in places such as Kingfield and Windom. It has a relationship with the Lyndale Neighborhood Association and Lyndale Neighborhood Development Corporation where those organizations cover up to $3,000 of a down payment, closing costs or housing rehabilitation payment for first-time buyers.

But perhaps the most generous is the Fulton deal, which finally came to fruition for the first time with Martinez. The $50,000 the neighborhood’s housing committee provides goes directly toward the mortgage buy-down. Combined with the grant- and loan-powered payments City of Lakes provides to each of its clients, it cuts mortgages down by more than $100,000.

Martinez’s home was valued at $285,000. She’s responsible for less than two-thirds.

Through City of Lakes, she also will receive up to $25,000 for repairs she said will go toward a new roof, an improved basement and, hopefully, an expanded upstairs bedroom for David.

Jeff Alden, of the Fulton Neighborhood Association’s housing committee, said the neighborhood association has budgeted another $100,000 in Neighborhood Revitalization Program money  to help with two more affordable housing purchases.

“The process is a little daunting when you start out,” Alden said. “But that was another reason for us to do it, to create a model for other Southwest neighborhoods to follow. If others want, they can call us. We’d be happy to provide whatever knowledge we have.”

* * *

This time last year, Martinez knew she wanted to move.

She wanted to live near family — she has two grown daughters who live in the Twin Cities. But she didn’t want to stay in Burnsville with her mother any longer.

To stay wouldn’t have been fair to Martinez. It wouldn’t have been fair to her mom. It wouldn’t have been fair to Becca and David.

Yet with an income in the $30,000s — she works in administration at her father’s topographical mapping company — she was hard-pressed to find a decent living arrangement for herself and her children.

She looked at apartments in South Minneapolis. Too old, she called them. And they were too expensive when factoring in the cost of utilities and childcare. An alternative was moving back to Pelican Rapids, but that would create an isolated life away from family.

She had all but decided to stay in Burnsville when she spent an afternoon driving and dreaming about moving. That’s when she saw a sign for St. Paul-based Rondo Community Land Trust, a sign that inspired her to Google “land trusts” the next time she had a chance.

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it,” Martinez said. “Anyone I talked to about it thought I was whacko. It was like, why would anybody give you money to buy a house?”

Of all of the websites she saw that day, City of Lakes had the clearest. Doubts aside, she quickly contacted the institution and took the steps necessary to become a client.

Shortly afterward, she was a homeowner in Fulton.

* * *

Ask Martinez to tell her story, and she’ll deliver it with exuberance and vibrancy, rat-tat-tatting her way through. But asked to describe the feeling of walking into her own home, of settling down with her family, of knowing that David can practice drums inside the house without disturbing the neighbors and that Becca can safely play with new friends down the street — the emotions that question brought created a long pause and a deep breath.

She changed the subject. She talked about Becca learning how to knit and the pride she has in David’s scholarship to St. Thomas Academy. But an hour later, perhaps unbeknownst to her, she answered the question.

“This is what it’s all about,” she said. “This is really what makes everything else worth putting up with. Worth spending money for. Worth the time. Worth the mess. Worth the noise. Worth the cleanup. Worth it all. Just to have us together.

“Us together.”