May 3, 2006 - Over the past couple of years, soaring home costs have priced thousands of families out of chances to buy their first houses in the Tucson region.
In Marana, affordable housing seems particularly spectral.
A quick check of the popular real estate Web site Homes.com shows most homes in Marana selling in the $400,000 range. Just 13 of 52 listings for Marana showed homes selling for less than $150,000.
Since 1995, the town of Marana has built one to two affordable homes a year. The town would like to build closer to four homes each year. To do that, the town will seek a $400,000 federal grant.
The additional money would jumpstart a partnership with the Marana school district, in which troubled students help build houses for the town.
The Construction Works Program - responsible for almost a dozen affordable houses in Marana - languished this school year, all but dead due to a lack of funding.
Marana Economic Development Director Dick Gear has asked the school district for 30 students to help next year. In 2004-2005, 28 students participated in the program, with more students on a waiting list.
"There should be no difficulty in identifying more students for next year," district spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said. "Our goal is for two homes being completed before the end of the school year."
Last summer, students helped build a house in Honea Heights at 12275 W. Moore Road, the last affordable home built in Marana.
Two families applied with the town, each hoping to claim the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house as its own.
A coin toss decided the issue.
Chris O'Gurk called "heads" and the quarter fell her way. She and her 12-year-old son Ryan finally had a house to keep and a yard to play in. The unlucky family, gracious in defeat, retired to rural Pima County and a trailer.
O'Gurk immediately started sweating off the required 100 hours, landscaping a turnaround drive in front of the house. She planted cacti and rose bushes, some she saved for two years when she had no place to put them.
The 44-year-old mother never could have bought a house, if not for Marana's program, she said. O'Gurk suffers from arthritis, which affects most of her joints. The disease has reduced her walking to a half-limp.
Unable to work, she relies on a disability check to support her son Ryan and pay the mortgage on her new house. Ryan, somewhat of a prodigy with tools, has a mild form of autism.
Before building O'Gurk's house last summer, students built a shed to get a primer on electrical wiring and basic construction techniques. Ryan now stores his tools inside the shed. Occasionally, he leaves a hammer or wrench out, and O'Gurk's boyfriend Todd Roberts tells him to put them away.
Ryan's new sizeable back yard has only led to more creations, including a spin-art machine the Estes Elementary student keeps on the back porch, near the boce ball court.
"I can do landscaping more my way and build more things as long as they look nice," Ryan said.
His mother and Roberts "encourage him, even when he really pushes the envelope," Roberts said.
Ryan helped spruce up the front yard of the home, which features red rock, gravel and several plants and flowers laid out in a fairly elaborate turnaround drive.
"It's one of my hobbies and one of my loves," O'Gurk said of the landscaping. "I have my own land now to do it."
The O'Gurks and their four cockatiels, two cats, lizard and frog will have neighbors within a year, if things go according to plan.
The town will build another house next door to the O'Gurks, at the corner of Moore Road and Hester Drive, across the street from another house the town built a few years ago.
The new house will mark the eighth the town has built in Honea Heights. It will have the same interior layout with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The exterior of the house will look different.
The "Sante Fe" design will make use of a flat parapet roof rather than the sloping, paneled roof of previous town-built homes. Without the student program, the town will put the project out to bid. Construction could begin before the year ends, Gear said.
Ten years ago, Marana's affordable housing program started with $350,000 funding from two grants. About $200,000 remains of the initial budget, Housing Program General Contractor Dan Groseclose said.
The town needs the $400,000 federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development if it wants to build more houses in an exploding market, Groseclose explained.
"When we first started, we could build these houses for $72,000," he said. "Now, they're being appraised at $130,000."
While housing costs go up, the income levels for Marana families looking for an affordable home remain steady at $25,000 to $30,000 a year, Gear said.
Under the town's program, a mortgage depends on the gross monthly income of a family, 20 percent of which the owner will pay toward the home. In many cases, a family will pay half of the amount of a home's appraised value.
"A home appraised for $135,000, they might pay $60,000," Gear said.
This methodology has provided homes in Marana to farm laborers and single moms with several children. For just $10 a year, Marana Town Councilman Tim Escobedo's parents live in a house the town built on Price Lane.
Marana wants to build as many as 10 houses in middle-to-low-income neighborhoods like Berry Acres and Honea Heights. The town has enlisted the help of two graduate students with the University of Arizona's Drachman Institute to develop plans for the latter.
The town plans to put a park and another cluster of homes along the Santa Cruz River in Honea Heights. The graduate students a few weeks ago sent surveys to more than 200 neighborhood residents, seeking suggestions for the park.
"It will probably be a somewhat low-key park," landscape architect graduate student Maria Ruedinger said. "A lot of people say they want an urban fishing pond, pool or some sort of water feature."
The park probably will include walking trails, a play structure and picnic areas. It might also feature multipurpose ball fields, Ruedinger said.
The Honea Heights park will become part of the larger linear park the town has planned along the Santa Cruz.
Ruedinger and her partner Heidi Flugstad have developed preliminary plans for the river bank, which would provide space for about six houses. The town could build as many as 12 houses, if it decided to build two houses on one lot. A shared wall also would lower the prices of the homes, Ruedinger suggested.
Marana's town council on May 2 planned to approve increased impact fees to pay for road improvements and neighborhood parks. If the measure is approved, the town would waive impact fees for lower-income neighborhoods designated as "Colonias."
These neighborhoods include Marana Vista, Price Lane, Honea Heights, Yoem Pueblo, Berry Acres, Adonis and Amole Circle.