WEST VALLEY CITY -- Justin and Starla Pickering's new house has chocolate-colored shutters, wall-to-wall carpeting, a modern kitchen with oak cabinets and a backyard plenty big for a garden.
Their two children -- Wyatt, 3, and MaKynna, 18 months, each have their own bedrooms and a bathroom, too.But the most intriguing feature of their four-bedroom, two-story dream home near the E Center is the rent. They pay $525 a month. It's fixed for 15 years. And their rent payments go toward the purchase price.
"We couldn't find a place with reasonable rent, especially for the size of this place," Starla Pickering, 22, said.
"Nowhere can you rent a four-bedroom home for about $500 a month," Justin Pickering, 23, added.
The Pickerings are one of 10 low-income families who moved into their new homes around Valentine's Day.
Sometimes treated as neighborhood outcasts, rentals are in limited supply. But this new West Valley subdivision is getting the welcome mat from city officials, even Gov. Mike Leavitt, for redefining what low-income housing looks like.
The new homes -- six four-bedroom and four three-bedroom -- were built under a credit-to-own program, or Crown, thanks to a partnership of state, county and city housing agencies and American Express Centurion Bank.
What's appealing to the families, like the Pickerings, who otherwise couldn't afford a decent place to live, is the rents won't go up more than 3 percent a year over the next 15 years. After that time, the Pickerings can buy their house for the outstanding balance, probably around $60,000.
Considering the homes are worth more than $100,000 already, the Pickerings think it's a good deal.
Ben Martinez is thankful to have a similar deal.
Martinez, a 29-year-old lab technician and college student, is a single father of three children. Five years ago, when he moved into a three-bedroom apartment behind the Valley Fair Mall, his rent was about $600 a month. "It seems like it was always going up about 50 bucks," he said. By the time he moved out last month, he was paying close to $750 a month.
Now his rent is $525 for his four-bedroom Crown home.
His kids love it. They each have their own bedroom.
The Pickerings qualified for their home because Justin earns about $25,000 a year as a house painter. That's 50 percent of the Salt Lake County median income for a family of four.
The experiences of Martinez and the Pickerings are apt illustrations of the difficulty in finding affordable places to live.
About two years ago, the Pickerings rented a two-bedroom house for $500 from a couple on a mission in Norway. After 18 months, the mission couple returned, and the Pickerings had to move. They couldn't find anything affordable. Some landlords wanted a security deposit, plus first month's rent. Last summer they moved in with Justin's parents, who live in Kearns.
For eight months, the rental market didn't change.
"We looked at houses and duplexes that looked like World War II hit it," Justin Pickering said. The rent at the duplexes was outrageous, he added. And they were small.
West Valley Mayor Gearld Wright said the lack of affordable housing is a nationwide problem.
The city does what it can to encourage developers to build more affordable housing. In some cases, the city has bought homes, fixed them up and rented them out.
"In many cases, the neighbors don't even know they're city-owned homes," he said.
Statewide statistics show there's been a 59-percent drop in the number of building permits issued for multifamily units, between the building peak in 1984 and 1994, the year for the latest statistics compiled by the Utah Housing Finance Agency. Meanwhile, rents climbed. The Salt Lake Area Apartment Vacancy Survey reports that the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit increased from $437 in 1992 to $654 in 1995.
"What kills low-income families is when the rents go up," said Bob Erickson, executive director of Utah Housing Finance Agency.
Rents have risen 13 percent to 15 percent in a given year, he added -- much faster than incomes increase.
The families who qualify for Crown are families who can't in their wildest dreams afford a new home, Erickson said. They're hardworking folks he calls, "poor with potential."
The families in the homes are expected to do the maintenance themselves like any homeowner. Housing officials will check to make sure the grass is being mowed. Part of the rent goes into a maintenance fund that is used to cover major fixes.
To the Pickerings, there's only one downside: no dogs or cats allowed.
"Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a dog," Justin Pickering said. Perhaps housing officials will change their minds in a few years, he added.