Tammy Howard and daughter April, 20, tapped one of the most successful affordable housing developers in Miami-Dade, Habitat for Humanity, which built the family's first home. (Raul Rubiera/Miami Herald)Part 1 photos

HABITAT FOR HUMANITY

One developer delivers on promises
The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity has built 550 houses since 1990 on inner-city lots and in subdivisions.

The first night in her first house, Tammy Howard had no lights, no air-conditioning and no furniture.

Didn't matter.

She stretched out on a blanket on the living room floor, propped open a window, and listened to the sounds of her new neighborhood.

In the morning, she sat on a paint bucket on her front porch and waved at neighbors on their way to church.

Soon, her six children would arrive with pots and pillows and bundles of clothing. But for now on this rainy Sunday, Howard drifted from room to room, a moment alone in the house she managed to buy earning $9.50 an hour as a full-time waitress.

"I'd ride by this place when there wasn't nothing but dirt," she said. "I'd ride by and just look and look. That's crazy, I know, but this was going to be my house."

She was lucky to get it.

While thousands of families searched for an affordable place to live in a county with spiraling rents and red-hot home prices, Howard tapped one of the few affordable housing developers that have regularly built what they promised.

Since 1990, Miami Habitat for Humanity has produced 200 houses on inner-city lots, plus 350 more in subdivisions.

Other developers have racked up extensive delays on badly needed houses or walked off with the money without ever building. Others managed to produce houses -- only to sell them to real estate investors or families that flipped them for profit.

All the while, Habitat for Humanity put hundreds of families into homes.

"We know what it's going to take to get the job done," said Anne Manning, executive director of Miami's Habitat's office.

Part of the agency's success comes down to money: Habitat doesn't need a bank loan to start construction because the agency raises the money itself. But officials at Habitat, with 2,000 offices nationwide, say experience is key.

The Miami-Dade Housing Agency has given money and land to a series of mom-and-pop developers and nonprofit groups with little building experience.

Habitat, founded in 1976 as a nonprofit housing charity, has built almost 200,000 houses around the world.

Over the course of a year, the agency built Howard's $116,000 house just off NW 79th Street in Liberty City.

Habitat provided a zero-interest loan; the Housing Agency, a second mortgage to reduce the principal by $30,000.

Howard, 42, contributed 250 hours in "sweat equity," building her house and others. She opened a bank account and saved $1,500 for a down payment. She saved another $3,000 for furniture.

"Everything new," she said.

For 11 years, she lived in public housing in Liberty City, raising her children in a five-bedroom town house with cracked floors and dirty ceilings. Roaches crawled through holes in the kitchen walls.

So it was a monumental day when Howard got to ask her 20-year-old daughter, April, to pick out the paint color of the family's first house. Pink.

"We've never been in a real house," April said. "Now look at what my mom's done."