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An Inspiring Journey Through Habitat For Humanity’s Zero-Interest Mortgage Program

An empowering community-focused lending initiative helps a relentless texas woman transform her life

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Steve Goode
Habitat For Humanity’s Zero-Interest Mortgage Program

When Jennifer Evans had a personal crisis in 2005, she decided to leave California and move back to her central Texas hometown of Waco to be closer to her parents.

After several years of sharing their 700-square-foot home, Evans started looking for some space of her own while working a job that paid her little more than $10 an hour as a recreational director at a local retirement community.

“I would not have been able to own a home at that time,” said Evans, who also had spent time working as a substitute teacher, city bus driver and barista after moving back to Waco. “I  probably would have moved on to another city.”

But then Evans found out about a zero-interest mortgage program from a couple who lived in the retirement community where she worked.



As luck would have it, the couple she spoke to were the parents of John Alexander, the executive director of the Waco Habitat for Humanity, where the zero-interest rate mortgage program had been in existence for decades to the benefit of scores of people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to realize the dream of home ownership.

Alexander, who is still in that position, said recently that the Waco organization has completed and handed over more than 180 zero-interest mortgage homes to grateful owners since 1986, and three more are expected to be completed in 2023.

“The zero-interest mortgage is key to Habitat’s model. It is what makes the home affordable to the low-income households we work with,” Alexander said. “Without the zero-interest mortgage, the families would not be able to purchase their homes and build wealth as they pay off their mortgages.”




The mortgage may be interest-free, but applicants don’t get a free-ride to approval.

According to the Waco Habitat for Humanity website, applicants must: be legal residents of the U.S.; either be living in overcrowded or bad conditions, paying 30% or more of their income for housing or be unable to secure decent housing through traditional means; must have a stable income 35% to 60% of the county’s median income; be able to pay all monthly bills; work at a current place of employment for at least a year; save $1,500 by closing to cover the cost of two months of utilities and insurance; and volunteer for 300 hours of sweat equity to the home they are qualified for or the home of another applicant.

The process usually takes 18 to 24 months.

Of the sweat equity, Evans said the heat during the summer was oppressive at times nearing 114. The cold was also a factor she said, but everyone soldiered through.

Evans said she worked on siding, painting, a little roofing, fascia, window installs, flooring, caulking, and helped hang doors, build porch railings, raise trusses and frame, and assisted with roughing in plumbing.

“Some of the work was quite easy and some tasks were quite difficult. Oftentimes I worked with one or two other staff members and a few volunteers,” she said. “As my time volunteering went on, I had the opportunity to take the lead and lead a group of volunteers. I mainly got folks going on painting siding and trim or putting up Hardie board siding. I enjoyed empowering others. I also volunteered as a photographer for the affiliate.”

Evans said that she hit her mandatory sweat equity mark and kept on going.

“My house was ready to move in on March 1st,” she said. “I signed my mortgage Feb. 28, 2014. I had over 600 hours.”



Kelli Diserens, director of community investment

Independent Financial


Kelli Diserens, director of community investment for Independent Financial, a community-centric financial institution providing relationship-driven banking products and services in Texas and Colorado, said her company’s goal with the program is to provide equity so that Habitat can build more houses. Their efforts help reduce construction costs from about $200 per-square foot to about $60 per-square-foot,” she said, adding the most expensive component of the process is land.

For Diserens the program covers the “community-centric” part of her company’s mission statement well.

“You’re creating an asset for an individual who has never had one. You’re wealth building,” she said. “It improves their ability to live.”

It also just plain makes people feel good about what they are doing, whether they are volunteering to pound nails, pour concrete, provide financial services that help Habitat buy land to build more homes or help someone learn how to own a home.

“When I go to ribbon cuttings they’re just utterly speechless, crying,” she said. “It’s inspiring. They own it. They can paint it or put a nail in the wall.”

Habitat for Humanity pays for the houses by raising funds from a variety of sources. They use the money they get from mortgage payments to make more loans, buy more land and build more houses.



Recipients of the zero-mortgage homes also have to get educated on the ins and outs of homeownership through New Homeowners College before purchasing their homes. The program is administered by Waco Habitat and the non-profit Grassroots Waco, which does a series of financial literacy classes for all or the program’s future homeowners. Waco Habitat holds classes on home safety, insurance, property taxes, home maintenance and owning vs. renting.

Darrell Abercrombie, a Grassroots Waco housing counselor since 2001, said their classes cover

budgeting, the importance of saving money and building credit, identity protection, the benefits of lenders and realtors, home inspections, family estate planning, debt to income ratios and the importance of staying within your budget.

“Not everyone has the knowledge to buy a home,” he said.

Abercrombie said the program also tries to impress upon students the importance of passing down what they learned to their family, especially the intrinsic value of owning over renting.

“It’s very important,” he said. “You just don’t get any equity out of renting.”

Evans said her mortgage was $75,000 when she got it in 2014 and the house is now appraised at $148,000.

“I have 22 years left to pay on my mortgage,” she said. “In two years that would leave me with $50,000 left to pay. But as you can see, it is currently worth $98,000 if I subtract what is owed.”

Evans said she could use the equity to leverage the purchase of another home or to start a business, which is essentially a potential path to wealth building.

“Some families may choose to leave their homes to their children. This is a path to wealth building,” Evans said. “There are of course no guarantees, but the alternative to owning a home or not owning a home is strikingly apparent. This is why things like red-lining were problematic for an entire generation when it came to building wealth and the wealth gap.”

Evans said that she has looked into options that could allow her to build wealth that does not put her house in jeopardy and that she has a  window to plan her strategy as she moves forward.

“As of now I am saving  around 30% to 40% of what I earn from my job for future endeavors, and the zero interest, at cost, mortgage is allowing me this advantage,” she said.




Evans, who regarded herself as a “kind of a tumbleweed kind of person” has been living in a nearly 100-year-old, 1,400 square-foot Craftsman-style, home, since 2014. It’s one of only two in the program that were rehabs instead of new builds.

Evans is grateful for her good fortune and has tried to repay the favor. She has served on the Habitat’s board of directors, worked as an employee and continues to volunteer her time for the organization as a form of payback for what she calls “a god send.”

“I would have had to pay $265,000 for a $100,000 home and wouldn’t have been able to give so much more back,” she said.

As for what she learned and what she would like to tell others, Evans encouraged those in the lower income bracket not to let the stigma of it prevent them from asking for help and taking

advantage of programs like the one that has benefited her.

“Be real about where you are and be humble enough to accept what’s available,” said Evans.

As for the chores and responsibilities of homeownership Evans said her motto is to “leave the place better than I found it”.

“I have always taken care of the places I have lived, so the transition was not a difficult one. I am your garden variety responsible person,” she said..

For Alexander, the joy of helping Evans nine years ago is the same as always.

“I have helped build over 100 Habitat homes and I still enjoy working with the volunteers and the homeowners,” he said. I especially enjoy the house dedications ceremonies that we hold every time we complete a home. I enjoy seeing the difference an affordable, safe and stable home can make in the life of a homeowner.”

This article was originally published in the Lone Star LO August 2023 issue.
Steve Goode headshot
Steve Goode
Published on
Aug 29, 2023
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