It's nightfall and Kimberly Brown is picking up a stray paper cup from the lawn of her rented Pompano Beach town home.
She is particular about the landscaping, though few others are on this tired block, where the Broward County Housing Authority subsidizes her rent.
"I tell everybody, 'Look for the only town house with hedges, ' " she said. " 'That's me.' "
For five years, the divorced mother of four has rented the three-bedroom, one-bath home, dreaming of owning her own place. Now, she has a chance.
In early August, Brown, 35, applied to Habitat for Humanity of Broward, the local branch of an international organization that helps low-income people buy homes. With donations and volunteer labor, Habitat offers interest-free mortgages to qualifiers.
Brown was among more than 900 applicants at Fort Lauderdale's Mizell Cultural Center, all hoping for a home. She raced over from her job at the Broward County Library's main branch, and stepped into line where her mother and aunt held her space - No. 365.
At that first meeting, she had to provide proof of income to see if she qualified for the program. After clearing that initial hurdle, Brown again met with Habitat representatives about two weeks later. This time, she had to provide a checklist of items that included her social security card and birth certificate. She then spent several hours detailing her meager financial life on Habitat forms and being interviewed.
Then, she headed home to wait.
"God is going to give me this house, " Brown kept telling herself.
Applicants are chosen based on need, living conditions, income and willingness to partner with Habitat. They must earn 50 percent or less of Broward's median income - which is close to $60,000.
Of the original group of applicants, Habitat chose about 90 people and visited their homes in September and October. Habitat representatives met with the prospective homeowners and their families and looked into their living conditions to see how cramped, overcrowded and rundown the homes were. They also assessed the neighborhood. The applicants' conditions were then rated on a scale of 1 to 5.
In November, the final list of 35 families was released. Brown's name was on it.
Habitat has built 25 to 29 homes a year here for the past four years. They now build in Deerfield, Pompano and Hollywood. Brown is eligible for a three- or four-bedroom home - a move that is more than a year away.
The median price of an existing single-family home has surged above $300,000 in Broward County, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. That is much more than Brown can afford. She makes about $18,000 a year as a clerk at the Broward County Main Library. Her rent is $424, not including utilities, and she gets a small child-support check from one ex-husband.
At the holidays, unable to afford gifts, Brown rewraps Legos and other toys from her sons' closet, presenting them again.
Some would call Brown a strict parent. No calls are allowed after 8:30 p.m., and all the children - daughters Alicia Perdue, 17, and Steanna Perdue, 15, and sons Major, 8, and Tyler Brown, 5 - are in bed by 9 p.m. Also, she tries to see movies in the theater before she OK's them for the kids."She is not the sort of mother that will let the kids do what they want to do, " said Bishop Samuel Phillips of Fort Lauderdale's Revival Faith Center Ministries, the church Brown attends.
Brown grew up in Fort Lauderdale. She left Dillard High School before graduating, but plans to get her high school diploma, she said.In early January, Brown met the members of her Habitat group - the class of 2005 - for the first time, and was introduced to Antoinette Johnson, who will be her personal mentor through the process. Habitat calls them "nurture partners."
Like any eager student, Brown sat in the front row, listening to the orientation by Virgie Cortes-Marrero, Habitat's family services coordinator. She heard about the required monthly workshops on topics such as how mortgages work and being a good neighbor, and about the 500 hours of "sweat equity" she, and her family and friends must put in for Habitat.
'AN ATTAINABLE GOAL'
Cortes-Marrero brushed off the good-natured moaning about the volunteer hours.
"We'll get there, " she said. "It's an attainable goal."
The orientation closed with a prayer and a raffle. Brown won a tool set.
Before heading home, Brown met with Johnson, her partner, someone she already believes will be a powerful inspiration.
"I know it's like anxiety, " said Johnson, who moved into her Habitat home four years ago. "I've been there. I know."
Each class member has earned 2.5 hours toward the 500 required.
Only 497.5 to go.
THE JOURNEY TO HOMEOWNERSHIP: KIMBERLY BROWN'S REQUIREMENTS
* Complete 200 volunteer hours to be assigned a lot.
* Spend three Saturdays a month working on requirements.
* Complete 500 total volunteer hours.
* Deposit $125 a month into a Habitat account, up to $1,500, to pay taxes and insurance for the first year of her mortgage.
* Attend monthly workshops on topics such as how a mortgage works. Brown's requirements begin in February.
KEY HABITAT FACTS
* Habitat for Humanity, a worldwide organization with affiliates in more than 100 countries, including the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico, started in 1976.
* The nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry has built 175,000 houses.
* Since Habitat for Humanity of Broward started in 1983, it has built 170 single-family homes - half of which have been constructed in the last four years.
* Habitat for Humanity of Broward has built 25 to 29 homes a year for the past four years.
* Habitat for Humanity of Broward will try to build 30 homes in 2005.