Jackson County’s home giveaway warms families’ hearts

New appliances, a fridge filled with food and presents under the tree.

Already the newly restored inner city bungalow felt like home to 30-year-old LaToya Caldwell and her four kids as they toured it for the first time Thursday.

The Caldwells had been living in the unheated attic of a relative’s home, the mom working six days a week at a fast-food restaurant.

“Oh, this is wonderful, our house,” Caldwell said through tears as cameras and microphones recorded the moment and Jackson County officials beamed.

The furnished three-bedroom house near 35th and Woodland was one of two that Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders presented Thursday morning to young families who previously had no homes.

Few details were revealed about the second family, who wished to remain anonymous because of the threat of domestic violence, other than the mother works two jobs and would like to start her own business someday.

Both knew they were finalists for the house giveaway program, but neither knew they had been selected until the moment Sanders gave them the keys.

“Santa Claus came early,” Sanders said as the meeting room at the Nutter Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center erupted with applause.

“I didn’t see this coming,” Caldwell sobbed.

Both families will own their homes free and clear after seven years if they keep the taxes paid and maintain insurance.

Jackson County taxpayers spent $90,000 refurbishing the once abandoned homes, while a number of private donors also helped out — among them Cosentino’s Markets, Factory Direct Appliance and Lathrop & Gage.

Habitat for Humanity and the Jackson County Land Trust donated the properties.

Five homeless families now have been given houses since Sanders started the Constructing Futures program just as the Great Recession and the housing foreclosure crisis began taking hold.

Like both houses handed over Thursday, the first home, donated in 2009, went to a needy family in Ivanhoe, where vacant lots and hundreds of vacant houses account for 40 percent of the properties.

Helping repopulate inner city neighborhoods is one of the program’s chief aims, Sanders said.

A house here and a house there might not seem like a lot, but each new family moving onto a block is that much more encouragement for others to stay or move in, said Margaret May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council.

It means one fewer eyesore to further depress property values.

“I would guess we have 700 to 800 vacant houses in the neighborhood,” May said. “We are so happy and excited with the county and what they are doing.”

In addition to housing the homeless and helping revive neighborhoods, a goal of Constructing Futures is to provide jobs and teach new skills to people who have been in jail or have gone through the Jackson County Drug Court, said Sanders, a former county prosecutor.

Both houses needed lots of work. The copper wire and duct work had been stripped from the house that the Caldwells now live in.

Making the repairs and upgrades was a crew of four men and one woman working under the supervision of Morgan Jacobs General Contracting. They learned skills like carpentry, painting and the importance of getting to the job on time and ready to work.

“So many lives are touched by one home,” Sanders said.

Touched most of all were the lives of Caldwell and her kids — daughters Aerianna, 12, and Mariah, 2, as well as sons Andrew and Manyiuel, ages 10 and 7.

Caldwell has had a tough life. She grew up in a crack house where all the males in the family ended up in jail, in a gang or dead. She became homeless when the father of one of her kids turned violent.

Sanders said she has worked hard to take care of the family, working six days a week at a Wendy’s restaurant.

The family also has received a lot of help from groups like Sheffield Place and Operation Breakthrough.

“The last couple of years have been rough for me and my kids,” Caldwell said through tears as Sanders gave her the keys to the home and a hug.