CINCINNATI -- The house on Maryland Avenue wasn't pretty when Valerie Perez and her husband, Noé, signed the papers and picked up the keys.
Stones and plywood littered the yard. The walls needed to be scraped and painted. The floors needed to be refinished. There were holes in the concrete of the back deck and front stoop.
But the house was theirs, and that was something the Price Hill family of five never thought would happen.
"It was amazing. This was our first Thanksgiving. This was our first Christmas," Perez said. "There's so many firsts, and it's ours."
The Perezes are one of the first two families in Price Hill Will's homesteading program, which began in late 2015. Eight more families are on a waiting list to be homesteaders, and the organization is looking for long-term financial support to keep the program going.
Price Hill Will, a nonprofit community development organization, has spent the last decade buying, revitalizing and selling homes in the neighborhood. But many houses in need of repairs and owners aren't eligible for the revitalization program, which is geographically limited. Meanwhile, many of the families in the community can't afford to buy homes through conventional loans.
Homesteading was the strategy Price Hill Will offered to address both issues.
Here's how it works: Price Hill Will acquires a house that can be inexpensively brought up to code. Once basic repairs are done, Price Hill Will enters into a land contract with a family, which must complete a list of repairs and general maintenance to the home in addition to making payments. Price Hill Will has the opportunity to regularly inspect the home. After five years, the family owns the home free and clear.
The homesteading program requires participation from a web of social service and community development organizations around Price Hill Will. Santa Maria Community Services screens families for need and income eligibility, Working in Neighborhoods helps the homesteading families assess their budgets, and Legal Aid Southwestern Ohio draws up the land contracts. SC Ministry Foundation, Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio and the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation all support the program as well.
The first house -- the one the Perez family moved into -- was donated to Price Hill Will and required about $7,000 in repairs and maintenance to meet building codes. Price Hill Will purchased a second house from the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation for about $1,000; that one required about $23,000 in repairs. The organization averaged the cost, and the first homesteaders will buy their homes for about $16,000.
The land contract required a down payment, then 60 monthly payments. The Perez family was paying $475 each month for the apartment they rented. Through the homesteading program, they pay roughly $250 each month for the two-bedroom home they will own, free and clear, in five years.
"It's so pretty," Perez said. "There's hardwood floors. It has a wonderful backyard."
The homesteading program requires families have a median income at or below 80 percent of the annual median income. (In Cincinnati, according to the U.S. Census, that's $70,700.) Noé Perez is an auto mechanic, and Valerie Perez cares for their three children and works part-time at Santa Maria Community Services, which meant the family was screened by an additional agency before being admitted to the homesteading program.
Every month, Perez and her husband go to Price Hill Will to drop off their house payment. But, she said, the agency doesn't feel like a landlord or a bank.
"I can walk into Price Hill Will and say, 'Hey, I have this problem and I need help,'" Perez said. "They're there. 'Call us if you need us.' That's what they say every time we visit."
The family spent three days sanding and refinishing floors. They painted the rooms and repaired the back porch and front stoop. Another week of work helped them gain control of the overgrown yard, where Perez is planning for flower beds and a garden next summer. The family is saving up the $3,000 needed to reinforce a basement wall.
"Right now, we're scraping the cracks in the basement, getting ready while we save," Perez said.
Price Hill Will is also getting ready, trying to find more houses for the homesteading program as well as a way to make the program financially sustainable.
"It's a challenge because we have to find a home that can be repaired as inexpensively as possible, but also be okay to accommodate a family," Price Hill Will Executive Director Ken Smith said.
Price Hill Will received $10,000 from Fifth Third Bank for the homesteading program. The organization hopes to get another family in a home this year.
Additionally, the homesteading program is the center of an idea born from a creative placemaking network that was a partnership of ArtsWave and LISC of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Creative placemaking is using art to improve communities, and Price Hill Will and ArtWorks want to paint murals (with the permission and help of the homesteading families) on one of the homes.
But Price Hill Will is looking for an ongoing source of funding for homesteading. With so many empty, deteriorating buildings in Price Hill and a growing waiting list of low-income families ready to bring them back to life, the need is obvious. The trick, Smith said, is getting enough financial support to keep the cost to the homesteaders within their means and the risk to Price Hill Will low. The organization doesn't want to provide 20-year contracts to families.
Price Hill Will estimates $1 million could put 77 families into houses that might otherwise slowly deteriorate in the community.
"I would like these homes occupied and saved," Smith said. "That's a win for the neighborhood."