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A home for the holidays

MANATEE — A tear trickled down Maria Mina Dakila’s cheek as she searched for the right words Wednesday.

She took a breath, and smiled.

“My belief is, everything I put in the hands of God,” said Dakila, who emigrated from the Philippines seven years ago. “I ask God to send me a person to help me, but I didn’t ever expect this.”

‘This’ was a home of her own for the holidays.

Dakila and her new next-door neighbors, Ernesto and Guillermina Rivera, are about to become homeowners for the first time thanks to a partnership among governmental agencies, a local bank and Goodwill Industries’ GoodHomes of Manasota program.

Officials from those agencies celebrated with Dakila and the Riveras before, during and after a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the houses’ completion.

“This is the American Dream right here,” said Laura Taylor, project manager for GoodHomes, which provides affordable housing in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Using government grants, it buys existing homes and renovates them — or sometimes razes them and builds replacement homes — to be sold to those meeting income-eligibility requirements.

The agency has renovated or built more than 50 homes since 2000, but the pair of houses in the 5700 block of Fifth Street East are the first it has built in Manatee, Taylor said.

It all began in 2005, when a Manatee County code officer first saw the site.

“It was a mess,” said Ann Marie Harper, now the county’s nuisance-abatement division manager. “It was being used for everything except what it was intended for.”

Overgrown weeds covered the yard, surrounding a vacant duplex. Its exterior walls had been turned into a canvas for graffiti. Holes in the outer walls exposed the frame and wiring. Windows were shattered, giving wild animals, drug users and squatters easy access. A subsequent fire, caused by a squatter, only added to the damage.

The county ultimately boarded up the duplex, and the owner lost it to foreclosure. It likely would have remained a neighborhood eyesore had Harper not seen it as an opportunity.

“When I first saw this property, I could see this,” Harper said as she pointed to the new houses Wednesday. “No one else could, but I did.”

She helped orchestrate the property’s sale to GoodHomes, which financed the purchase through a $125,821 grant from the South County Community Redevelopment Agency. The county’s Neighborhood Services Department gave a $10,400 Community Development Block Grant to GoodHomes to demolish the duplex.

The $301,000 cost to build the new homes by local builder Guy Larkin Jr. was covered by the county’s HOME Investment Partnership Program, which also gave Dakila and the Riveras $40,000 each toward their down payments and closing costs.

The balance of their purchase prices was financed through Regions Bank and the Florida Housing Finance Corp.

The county also helped subdivide the lot and waived $20,000 in impact fees for the new houses.

Each three-bedroom, two-bath house features wall-to-wall tile, ceiling fans in every room, a full kitchen with new appliances and large fenced-in back yards.

“It makes me feel good in my heart,” Ernesto Rivera said as he stood in his new living room, which will sport a Christmas tree as early as Friday, when the Puerto Rican couple plans to move in.

Dakila, who has been living with friends, plans to move into her new home in January. She said she’ll forever be thankful for those who helped her become a homeowner for the first time at age 53.

“I’m so very happy that these people have such good hearts,” Dakila said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.