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Project update: Avena Bella provides safe housing for low-income families
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Nicole Esparza and three of her four daughters Angelina, Iyanna, and Maya enjoy their spacious apartment at Avena Bella.

It was less than one year ago that Nicole Esparza and her four daughters were living in a cramped one bedroom apartment when a man attempted to break into their home.

“We were sacrificing because we couldn’t make it economically,” explained Esparaza, who stayed in the confined conditions to be near her grandfather.

 Barricading herself and her children inside for protection from the intruder until the sheriff’s department arrived, her family’s subsequent safety was not enough to assuage her fears of the attacker returning.

“There was no way we could stay there,” said Esparza who promptly sought out another place to live.

Fortunately for Esparza, Turlock’s newest affordable housing complex, Avena Bella, was still accepting applications. Esparza frantically gathered the necessary paperwork and within a week had applied for one of the three bedroom apartments, submitting her application just weeks before the deadline in December. On Christmas Day Esparza told her four girls they would be moving, drastically changing their circumstances and their futures.

While Avena Bella’s main purpose is to offer quality housing for low-income families, the complex also offers a host of activities and services including a pool, playground, computer lab, homework club, and scholarship program. Upon moving into the new community, Esparza’s eldest daughter Sierra Ceja submitted an essay for a scholarship competition and won. She was awarded $2,500 to further her education and is now a student at Modesto Junior College.

“She was determined,” recalled Esparza. “She told me that we were going to make the most of this change and she did.”

Esparza’s daughter is not the only one to benefit from the family’s change in housing as Esparza has been able to save more money due to the affordable rates at Avena Bella, thus allowing her to work one job instead of two. In turn Esparza has focused on her career in cosmetology and was promoted at her new salon after only two weeks of employment.

“I am able to just have my career again,” said Esparza, noting that with one job she is able to spend more time with her daughters.

Avena Bella has also allowed Esparza to save money and thus rebuild economically in a variety of ways.  She no longer spends as much money on gas as her 11-year-old daughter Angelina Esparza attends Cunningham Elementary which is just a stone’s throw from Avena Bella. The housing complex’s freeway accessibility, as well as proximity to the nearby shopping center on Lander Avenue has also proved helpful.

The location of Avena Bella was no accident and was strategically chosen, according to Turlock's Assistant to the City Manager for Economic Development and Housing Maryn Pitt.

“You can walk to buy groceries and there is a nearby bus transit line. These are all things that you have to look at when developing a project of this nature,” explained Pitt.

December will mark the one year anniversary of the completion of the West Linwood Avenue housing complex, which is managed by EAH Housing, a nonprofit corporation that specializes in affordable housing. While 242 occupants currently call Avena Bella home, more than 300 people are on the waiting list. Residents looking to live at Avena Bell must sign a year-long lease and meet income limitations as determined by the number of family members and necessary apartment size.

Noting that crime has not been a problem at Avena Bella, Pitt also stated that residents undergo a background check prior to being approved which, according to Esparza, has contributed to her newfound sense of safety for herself and her girls.

“This is not the tenement housing in New York,” said Pitt, noting the granite counter tops and quality furnishings of the apartments. “It is our belief that affordable housing should bring the area up, not down.”

“The girls are still on edge at times but the atmosphere is so much better,” said Esparza.

The City of Turlock is considering expanding Avena Bella in future years to include 60 additional units slated to be developed on the parcel of land adjacent to Highway 99.  However, with the dissolution of the redevelopment agencies, the expansion may take longer than desired.

In the meantime, families like the Esparza’s are already renewing their leases at the affordable housing complex allowing them to not only continue to live in a safe community, but also create a better life.

Affordable housing is much more than just walls and windows. It’s a gateway towards upward mobility; it’s a stepping stone towards the American Dream. It’s a hand up,” said EAH Housing Vice President of Real Estate Management Dianna Ingle.