The people priced out of today's homes in your area are running your fire department, feeding your kids, and keeping your streets clean and safe. Teachers, police officers, maintenance workers, bartenders, gas station attendants, store clerks, dry cleaners, barbers, firefighters, sanitation workers. The list of occupations that fall short of housing's high costs grows longer every day, as wages stagnate and home values escalate. Our staff went from coast to coast to find people in every corner of the country who have come to grips with their inability to afford decent housing. Fortunately, special programs have enabled many of these people to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and enter the housing market. Millions of others like them may never do the same -- unless private builders get involved.

First-Time Charm

The Flores family attended a home buying program that led them to a brand-new home.

By Christina B. Farnsworth

Angel Flores, 28, and his wife Veronica, 26, started home shopping shortly after the birth of their first child, Erika (now five).

Angel thought they might qualify for a home, but the couple had credit issues, and lenders wanted to charge them 14 percent mortgage interest. That put buying a home out of reach.

Although discouraged about their chances, the couple attended a meeting about a home buyer program. They then met with a real estate agent for almost three years who counseled them to minimize outstanding credit balances and to explore first-time owner opportunities.

The couple also practiced for ownership. Already paying $500 a month in rent, they set aside an extra $200 each month to prove to themselves and lenders that they could afford a $700 a month payment.

Their determination was convincing: Angel makes only $25,500 a year from his job with the Tucson/Pima County (Ariz.) Household Hazardous Waste department. Veronica stays home with Erika and nine-month-old Juaquin.

The Flores family qualified for a new $79,000 home in Tucson's west side Banks Grove community of 16 homes built and sponsored by Primavera Builders, Habitat for Humanity, and Tucson Metropolitan Ministry (TMM). The city of Tucson holds a $16,000 lien on the land and infrastructure that must be paid back when they sell the homes, which have been appraised at more than $100,000.

The couple selected a rich rust-colored exterior stucco and a blue, standing seam metal roof for their four-bedroom, two-bathroom home built of energy-efficient Integra block. Angel proudly displayed his recent $30 utility bill. Their mortgage is $604 a month.

TMM, a faith-based, non-denominational social service agency, has helped more than 150 families purchase their first home, says Terry Galligan, TMM's director of housing development.

No Home to Own

Food service managers in Athens, Ga., pre-qualify but find nothing to buy in their price ranges.

By Christina B. Farnsworth

Linda Condon, 52, is one of seven managers supervising the 120-person food service staff at the University of Georgia's Georgia Center. Her friend Jorie Fryer, 44, is beverage manager. It's one of the largest university-owned conference centers in the country. Both have worked at the center for five years and are state employees.

Linda and Jorie fall outside of the traditional definitions of family used in tabulating the affordable workforce housing gap. Linda currently lives with her daughter's young family in their 105-year-old house two miles from the campus. But that house is filling up -- with one child already and another on the way. Divorced, Linda now wants a place of her own but has never lived alone; statisticians count her as part of her son-in-law's family household.

Jorie lives alone in a house she's rented for 13 years. Her housing search is complicated -- she doesn't drive and needs to live along a bus route or within walking distance to work, as she does now. These women illustrate the unmet workforce housing needs of single adults and adults living with unrelated people that are both socially significant and potentially profitable.

Linda and Jorie believed homeownership was only a dream until the University of Georgia's course for first-time home buyers taught them otherwise. A Wells Fargo Bank expert met twice a week for two weeks with the class, which included pre-qualification for mortgages. Linda, who makes $25,900 annually, discovered herself qualified to buy a $90,000 home. Jorie qualified for $130,000, but realizes that a house in that range would consume most of her take-home pay. She set a more modest cap for herself of $100,000.

Here's the rub: Homes in their price and commuting range will be hard if not impossible to find. Their ideal homes would be along a bus line or near the Georgia Center in an area that is not "student oriented." Houses that sold for $75,000 five years ago now bring $150,000 and up. That solid appreciation has pushed Athens' median price to $156,000.

Their search continues. The two friends now hope they can improve their chances for homeownership by buying a duplex, with each occupying a unit.

Tough Choices

A Virginia family must choose between owning a home or accepting disability payments for their young son.

By Alison Rice

For the Pitts family, the path to homeownership has been a series of catch-22s.

With a household income of $40,000, Mary and Marvin Pitts make too much money to receive medical assistance for their son but not enough to easily afford the doctor bills involved in caring for a son with Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disability similar to autism.

So the couple turned to Social Security, which agreed that Detler, 8, was eligible for a monthly disability payment between $180 and $300. "It came in very handy at the beginning," says Mary, who used the money to pay for such things as Detler's prescription medications ($100 monthly) or a brain MRI that cost the family $400 out-of-pocket even after their health insurance kicked in.

With Detler's medical expenses covered, the family started saving for a home, hoping to leave their two-bedroom apartment carved out of an older Colonial in Bealeton, Va., where they moved when rents in nearby Manassas became too high. The couple also has a daughter, Avery, 3.

Then came their yearly disability review, where Mary learned that they couldn't use any extra cash toward a home without having to pay all those disability payments back and that owning a home would boost their assets beyond government limits, making them ineligible for the disability checks.

Caught in the middle, the Pitts family chose their dream of homeownership and decided to pay Detler's out-of-pocket medical costs without help.

But finding a home wasn't easy either. Mary, an office manager for a medical practice, and Marvin, a county employee, only qualified for a $110,000 home, which was simultaneously not enough to buy the house and yard they wanted for their children and too large a mortgage payment ($900) for their financial comfort. "They always give you more than you can afford," Mary says. "When you look at what you really can afford, it feels like a big joke."

Still, they looked, exploring new homes, existing homes, modular homes, HUD homes, and even kit homes without success. Finally, they connected with the nonprofit Fauquier Housing Corp. (FHC), which was building a neighborhood of affordable housing nearby. With credit counseling and a $1,000 down payment, the Pitts family qualified for an $82,000 FHC home, which they expect to occupy in late summer or early fall.

"The kids are just tickled," says Mary. "They make us drive by the site. My son used to want a dog for the yard. Now he's upgraded to a zebra."

Hope for HOPE VI?

The Bush administration wants to cut this program to redevelop public housing, but Congress may balk.

By Steve Zurier

The Bush administration wants to eliminate $575 million in funds for HOPE VI from the fiscal 2004 budget, but the expectation is that housing groups and supportive members of Congress from both parties will reauthorize the program.

HOPE VI provides funds for the demolition and redevelopment of distressed public housing. The program stems from a commission Congress established in 1989 that identified 86,000 units as severely distressed and in need of redevelopment.

Although statistics on the status of public housing are hard to come by, as of June 2002, 54,000 units were demolished and another 45,000 units were slated for demolition. The administration contends that since the government met its goal, the program should be discontinued. Advocates such as the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) say HOPE VI should continue because while roughly 100,000 units were demolished or are slated to be torn down, only about one-third of the demolished units will be replaced as public housing for low-income families.

NAHRO says there were at least a dozen projects around the country that could have been funded in fiscal 2002, but funds were not available.

Grazyna's Place

It took more than a decade, but one Eastern European immigrant found the American dream.

By Steve Zurier

For Grazyna Sojka, a 45-year-old Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1987 with help from a Catholic immigration organization, the dream of having her own place took root in 2000.

After starting off cleaning rooms at a Holiday Inn for $4.25 an hour, Sojka learned English, developed secretarial skills, and pushed her administrative assistant salary at Marriott Corp. -- a job she landed in 1993 -- to slightly more than $30,000.

But in the interim the cost of living in the Washington area had skyrocketed. Many of the new townhouses started at well over $250,000, and rents for a one-bedroom apartment were up around $800 a month. So by the late 1990s, Sojka was still in the group home in Silver Spring, Md., that she'd lived in for about eight years with four other people, keeping costs down to $400 a month so she could save for a place of her own.

Sometime in 2000, a friend encouraged her to apply for a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) -- a program in Montgomery County, Md., that offers affordable housing to people with low and moderate incomes. Sojka had good credit and a solid job history at Marriott, so she was accepted. Finally, in late August 2001, she moved into a condo at the King Farm development in Rockville, Md.

Of course, a couple of weeks later the Sept. 11 attacks hit and the travel industry was beset by layoffs. Sojka was laid off later that fall.

"I was petrified," Sojka says, but she left Marriott with severance money and a few months later landed a job for a bit more money as a project administrator with Trammel Crow Residential. Sojka says building is in her blood. She was a draftsperson in Europe and her father was a project super.

"The best part about America is that it's never too late," Sojka says. "And it's not a shame to fail. If you get laid off or fired, you just start over. I've learned to ride horses, and I started taking piano lessons recently, and nobody says I'm too old."

Sojka paid $85,000 for the MPDU. The condo is a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,000-square-foot unit on one floor with a kitchen, dining room, living room, and balcony. Her condo is a 20-minute drive from work, close to bus transportation, and about a half-mile walk from the Metro.

Sojka says even with the better salary, making ends meet is tough. Her mortgage is $860 a month, condo fees are $171 a month, and utilities cost slightly more than $100 a month. Property taxes also run about $145 a month, and she still sends money to her family in Poland, where she says the unemployment rate is up over 18 percent. "I don't have to watch every penny," she says. "But I do have to watch every $5."

Making a Better Life

With help from Habitat for Humanity, the Reid family is turning things around.

By Rich Binsacca Matthew and carrie reid had felt snakebit when they tried to improve their lives. "It was like we had a cosmic bull's-eye on our backs," says Matthew, 30. "Every time we turned around, something else came up." Then a letter arrived in their mailbox in March telling them they'd been accepted into the Boise (Idaho) Habitat for Humanity program.

A disabled veteran, Matthew had been a long-haul truck driver and worked minimum-wage jobs in shipping and receiving; meanwhile, Carrie, also 30, suffers from Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic pain and prevents her from working. Their income from the Veteran's Administration, Matthew's Army pension, and Social Security is about half the area median, yet they pay the county average for their aging two-bedroom, one-bath rental house in Boise.

Between a meth lab in the duplex next door and "who knows what growing in the walls" of their rental house that contributed to Carrie's worsening health, the Reids couldn't seem to catch a break. When they declared bankruptcy four years ago, their hope of owning a home in a decent, safe neighborhood seemed far-fetched, at best.

The new century has been slightly better for the couple and their two children, Katelynn, 5, and Miles, 4. Since 2000, Matthew has been pursuing a bachelor's degree in applied science and an associates degree in drafting technology at Boise State University under the Army's vocational rehabilitation program. He hopes to hook on with an architectural or engineering firm as a CAD operator when he graduates in 2005. "I went back to school to get a degree and a decent job, to make a better life for my family," he says.

The big news, however, came from Habitat. Pushed by a friend to apply to the nonprofit housing agency, the Reids are on track to move into a new home (complete with the humidifier and air filter recommended by Carrie's doctor) by the end of this year. "We were just stunned," says Carrie. "It's exciting to know that this is really going to happen."