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Monday, March 31, 2008

Housing organization could shut doors

By Kayla Bunge/The Janesville Gazette

The Southeastern Wisconsin Housing Corporation will close its doors unless more qualified families sign up for the program that helps low- and very low-income families in Rock and Walworth counties become homeowners.

"We're in deep trouble," said Executive Director Arturo Gonzales.

The organization could lose its funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, which provides mortgages with an interest rate that can be subsidized down to 1 percent.

Per the grant, the organization has to build 31 houses in a two-year period, which ends in July.

But because Southeastern Wisconsin Housing has enough money to last until December (as a result of Gonzales taking a voluntary layoff and laying off three employees), Rural Development granted the organization an extension.

Gonzales said the organization needs to sign up 12 more families to fulfill its federal grant requirements by April. That will leave the organization enough time to close on the houses and build them by December, he said.

"If we get them, there's a strong possibility we can reapply for another contract," Gonzales said. "If we don't, that's it."

But the organization is having trouble finding qualified families.

"Not all the people who call us qualify," Gonzales said. "We might have to go to 20 families to get one good one."

It's not the sole reason for the organization's strife; the recent downtown in the economy has people "running scared," he said.

Gonzales said a lack of awareness also is contributing to the problem.

"It's ironic," he said. "I've been in Burlington (where the organization is based) all my life, and there are people in Burlington who don't know what we do."

Southeastern Wisconsin Housing Corporation was established in 1970 and has primarily helped families in Racine and Kenosha counties, until recently, when it added Rock and Walworth counties to the list.

In the organization's nearly 40 years, it has helped more than 1,500 families build their own homes.

Gonzales estimated that about half of those have been in Walworth County.

Gonzales said he doesn't want to shut the doors on Southeastern Wisconsin Housing.

"I hate to do that," he said. "I hate to think of the people that still need the help, and we just can't reach them."

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