SAGINAW, MI — Cecilia Olvera wasn’t 10 years old yet the first time she feared losing her home.
She watched her mother struggle to hold on to their Saginaw residence while facing mortgage foreclosure not long after the housing bubble burst in 2008.
“That was terrifying,” said Olvera, now 25.
Unlike many Americans in the same situation back then, her family navigated the turbulence, keeping the home. Still, the ordeal left its mark on Olvera. She pursued a career counseling homeowners and would-be homeowners in Detroit, determined to help them avoid the experience that traumatized her as a child.
Now, with that same motivation in mind, Olvera has returned to Saginaw and teamed with one of the city’s foremost preservationists to form a nonprofit. Their mission: To stabilize and sell city properties in foreclosure to homeowners and tenants in danger of losing the roof over their head.
“Being able to give them hope, and lead people directly to the resources that keep kids and parents and the elderly in their homes: It’s just the best feeling in the world,” Olvera said. “We want to do that for people here in Saginaw.”
Alex Mixter serves as the other half of the nonprofit, which they named Re: Saginaw Community Development (although some officials already use shorthand verbiage, pronouncing it “Re-Saginaw”).
While the duo remain in the early stages of developing the organization, Mixter’s connections with potential stakeholders and experience utilizing local housing resources provide an advantage not all start-ups possess. He serves as chairman of the Saginaw City Council-appointed Historic District Commission, oversaw the restoration of the historic downtown Lee mansion, and remains engaged in other community staples. For example, he coordinates the popular Old Saginaw City Lawn Chair Film Festival each summer.
Mixter said his passion for saving structures aligned well him with Olvera’s passion for saving residents struggling to remain in their homes.
“The core of the issue is really property tax foreclosure,” Mixter said. “A lot of people don’t really understand the ins and outs of it, so a lot of time, people lose their homes and they didn’t even realize that they were under threat of losing their home until it was too late. That’s what Cecilia is very good at identifying and dealing with, while I (have experience) responding to what has foreclosed.”
Their goals for the nonprofit’s first year: To identify and then stabilize and sell three city properties to the homes’ residents or tenants in danger of foreclosure; work with Saginaw County Treasurer Tim Novak to identify all Saginaw homes in forfeiture, which Olvera estimates will amount to about 1,500 houses; and seek donors, grants and sponsors to build the capital necessary to establish a revolving fund to finance the nonprofit.
Their budget estimate for the first fiscal year — which began Friday, July 1 — is $200,000. About $80,000 of that estimate was tied to labor and service costs to rehabilitate three properties.
The success of those initial goals will dictate the long-term course of Re: Saginaw Community Development, but Mixter and Olvera said they hope eventually to host affordable housing workshops for at-risk residents.
Mixter said they likely would team with other nonprofits or municipal programs responding to affordable housing issues.
“We’re not trying to reinvent anything here,” Mixter said. “There are plenty of organizations that already exist in this area, but the big problem in Saginaw is that we operate in silos. What we’re trying to do is a lot of work for two people, but there’s just so much opportunity for collaboration.”
Mixter and Olvera hope to partner with Saginaw City Hall. Earlier this year, they submitted a proposal for the nonprofit to receive $200,000 of Saginaw’s $52 million American Rescue Plan Act stimulus. Olvera discussed Re: Saginaw Community Development at a May meeting of the Saginaw City Council, which will determine how to spend the stimulus dollars.
For now, Re: Saginaw Community Development is headquartered at the Lee mansion, which Mixter considers a prototype for how the group will help keep aging Saginaw homes occupied. Once owned by the city and scheduled for demolition, Mixter’s efforts led to the 19th century-built structure’s rehabilitation from what seemed like an inevitable date with a wrecking ball.
“From the process of me buying a house in the Cathedral District, renovating this house on Washington Avenue, and then seeing all these obstacles that were in place: It really was a case study on how to identify and solve these problems with our housing,” Mixter said.
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