Lluvia Merello and her 13-year-old son, Ahmad Nelson, have almost lost count of exactly how many moves they made. Over the course of Ahmad’s early life, they bounced from Oregon to Texas and back again before permanently landing in Portland in 2010. Sometimes, the bouncing was intentional, bringing them closer to family spread across the country as Merello pursued educational opportunities. Other times, dicey, fast-shifting housing situations forced their hand.
But for Merello, stable housing was always the end goal. She wanted someplace affordable, safe and clean, with room enough, perhaps, to provide a gentle landing place for foster children who’d done their own fair share of bouncing.
When Ahmad entered elementary school, the pair settled into an affordable-but-slummy North Portland apartment while Merello pursued a social work degree. Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives eventually helped them relocate to a small house, but they weren’t home yet. They missed apartment life’s communalism, and the place was too small for fostering children — a much-discussed, long-cherished goal for them both.
The time was ripe to purchase, but Merello had paid her own way through school by working full time, accumulating zero debt, and that lack of credit paradoxically put bank loans beyond reach. So she turned to Habitat for Humanity.
In April 2015, Merello applied and was accepted into the Habitat for Humanity homeownership program and set her sights on a condo in the Cully neighborhood’s Agape Square. Her end of the bargain: an affordable monthly mortgage payment and 300 hours of sweat equity. She worked at Habitat construction sites and ReStores, taking classes and recruiting other families.
“My Saturdays were taken care of for about a year,” Merello recalls, laughing, but moving into their three-bedroom condo the following February with their first foster son in tow was a powerful moment of homecoming: “I remember the first night after we moved in, with everybody in their beds, they each had their own room, everyone in their own space. It felt so good and so right.”
Homeownership affects children profoundly, agrees Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East Director of Communications Melinda Musser, and Habitat is expanding and updating its homeownership program to ensure more families can access these benefits: “Families are able, once they move in, to feel a sense of stability,” Musser says. “It really does impact kids’ education, health — everything.”
Homeownership, when it finally materialized, indeed brought this family stability. For perhaps the first time, they had four strong walls, a solid community of neighbors and fewer financial unknowns.
And it has also brought freedom. Now they have enough space to be a foster family, and enough predictability for Merello to pursue the social and climate justice work that feeds her soul, instead of chasing a paycheck.
“I know, year after year, what my mortgage will be and that it will be stable,” says Merello. “Every day, I wake up so thankful that I can’t wake up to an eviction letter or a rent increase beyond my means. It totally opens up my mind and heart for other things.”
Merello and Ahmad are loving life in their close-knit condo complex. They’ve fostered four children there so far and Merello currently has three foster children in her care. She’s also busy nurturing an entrepreneurial endeavor: Indigenous Come Up, a jewelry craft startup supporting indigenous youth.
Ahmad, who’ll enter Jefferson High School this fall, is also pondering his prospects. Perhaps he’ll graduate early; perhaps he’ll become a farmer; perhaps he’ll raise his own family, and all three generations will live together in the Habitat condo.
Their shared journey has empowered him to dream, says Merello, and it’s a beautiful thing for a mother to behold: “He’s envisioning the future, and for him to have that option to think about in the future is awesome. He knows he has this home to always come back to.”
“I know, year after year, what my mortgage will be and that it will be stable. Every day, I wake up so thankful that I can’t wake up to an eviction letter or a rent increase beyond my means. It totally opens up my mind and heart for other things.”
Erin J. Bernard is a freelance writer and editor living the dream in Northeast Portland, where she resides with her husband and their bossy 22-month-old daughter. She spends her (nonexistent) free time eating tamales, scoping out garage sales, and blogging about the creative life at ejbwritingstudio.com.