Last year, Rita Estremera finally left her job as a Milwaukee Public Schools secretary and worked on her small business, making natural soaps and lotions, full time.
Eleven years ago, she started Aloekui, the business that is now located at St. Anne’s Intergenerational Center, to help with her sons’ eczema. She taught herself how to make soaps using library books and experimenting in the basement of a home she has lived in for nearly 20 years.
A home she and her husband came to own as members of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity‘s Affordable Home Ownership program.
Now Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy, unveiled Thursday morning, will reach dozens of similar families in the Harambee area. The organization will use a $1 million donation from Bader Philanthropies to build 40 new homes and repair 20 existing ones over the next four years.
The strategy is meant to boost home-ownership rates by engaging existing homeowners who need repairs and potential homeowners who have financial constraints.
Estremera, for example, emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York in 1995. That same year, she moved from New York to Milwaukee with her husband, Angel, and was pregnant with her first son, Anri.
They lived on the south side of Milwaukee in an area where she said she was often scared.
“Our cars got vandalized all the time, there was a lot of commotion in the building with people coming in and out,” she said. “We wanted to get out of the neighborhood.”
Estremera first picked up a Habitat for Humanity flyer in 2001, when she was working as a secretary at the Milwaukee Education Center.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity,” she said. “It was going to be our own place so we didn’t have to share with anyone.”
Dan Bader, the president and CEO of Bader Philanthropies, said that’s why his organization wants to help expand the program.
“We are about strong neighborhoods and we want to make sure that people live in a safe environment and a family-centered environment,” he said.
There are already around 50 Habitat homeowners living in Harambee, an area north of Brewers Hill that sits between Riverwest and I-43, and Bader said that is important.
“Homes that are owner-occupied really make a difference in our neighborhood,” he said. “It’s also really about people who have ownership of their homes and ownership of the block.”
Estremera said she isn’t sure she would have been able to get her business off the ground if she hadn’t owned her own home. She also said the move meant her children had a place to call home.
“First of all, my kids, they grew up here and we never had to move to a different house,” she said. “For me to have that stable place, it did a lot for them.”
Both of them are now in college. Anri, 23, is studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Tael, 20, is taking classes at MATC.
Helping Milwaukee residents save money for goals such as education is a big priority for Brian Sonderman, the executive director of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity. He noted that their research shows many Milwaukee residents spend more than 50% of their income on rent.
That’s why instead of an expensive down payment, Habitat’s homeownership program employs sweat equity, which requires potential homeowners in the program to spend between 210 and 370 hours helping build the home.
Estremera said she enjoyed that experience: “I had a chance to meet a lot of other people and make new friends. It was very nice.”
For this next round of homes, participants are expected to complete a certain amount of maintenance, financial education and other courses.
Estremera said her low-income payment was “the cherry on top.”
“For $350 a month, you own your own house? You can’t beat that,” she laughed.
Sonderman said the program was a collaborative effort that involved going door to door and surveying existing residents to figure out how best to strengthen the neighborhood’s existing assets.
Sonderman points to past successes for proof of their approach: In Washington Park, where Habitat spent about $20 million to build 150 new homes, he said they saw a 48% drop in crime.
The median income in Harambee was less than $25,000 in 2014 and the home ownership rate was 21% — slightly higher than the unemployment rate of 17%, according to a Greater Milwaukee Foundation neighborhood impact report.
Sonderman said Habitat wants to increase the number of homeowners as well as how long existing homeowners stay in the neighborhood.
The investment from Bader, he said, will help that happen one year sooner; the project, which was to begin in 2021 will now take place in 2020.
Estremera said being a Habitat owner has changed her life, and she’s willing to tell anyone who will listen — she even stood up and told everyone in church. Now she says two of her fellow worshippers have applied to become Habitat homeowners.
“This is a golden opportunity,” she said. “It’s a blessing to have a home for yourself and the mortgage is really low. If people don’t take advantage of this, who will?”
A full list of eligibility requirements for the Harambee project can be found here.