WALNUT CREEK -- Sandra Melero would often escape her small apartment in El Sobrante and "retreat" to Walnut Creek with her two daughters. The single mom would come to the East Bay enclave to shop and dine and dream.
"I just always thought I would live there," she said. "I always pictured myself there. We felt like we belonged."
Turns out Melero was right. Hers is one of the 10 families that will soon be Walnut Creek's newest residents. The families hope that by the end of summer they will move into brand-new homes for which they helped to pour the foundations, put up and paint the walls and lay the floors.
It's all part of Habitat for Humanity's Pleasant Creek Homes, 10 two-story duplex and triplex family homes across from the Walnut Creek BART Station on BarkleyAvenue.
Melero works in the county's Department of Social Services and has seen her pay cut as health care and retirement costs rise. She has had to move more than 10 times in the past few years as rents crept higher and higher. The apartment she lives in now could fit entirely on the first floor of her soon-to-be home.
This is the first Habitat for Humanity project done in Walnut Creek since the 1990s.
"We have wanted to come back ever since," said Janice Jensen, president of Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley.
But it wasn't an easy project to get done. The parcels were cobbled together over the years -- first a site owned by Walnut Creek, then a parcel the city helped obtain from Caltrans and finally land donated by a private owner who stepped up. It took years, far longer than normal, but it was worth it, Jensen said.
"I think this is a fantastic location in a great neighborhood," she said. "It's safe, there are a lot of kids, neighbors know neighbors, BART is located across the street and you are within walking distance to shopping and arts. This was a unique opportunity because we often don't get to build next to transportation and have all these amenities."
She hopes more Habitat homes are built in Walnut Creek, because the city is so desirable thanks to its safety and its schools. And affordable homes are needed, she added, in a city with 50 percent more jobs than residents.
"Someone with a limited income should be able to live in the city in which they work," Jensen said. "When you are able to do that, it's a huge benefit not just to the families but the employees themselves, who have more of a commitment to their city."
A benefit of the project for the community at large is a new public walkway from Pleasant Creek Homes to BART. For years, people have simply used a hole in the fence to get from the neighborhood to BART. Walnut Creek sought a state "Safe Routes to Transit" grant to provide the new sidewalk which, for the first time, also allows for a safe crossing at Hillside Avenue and Ygnacio Valley Road with a traffic signal button and a crosswalk.
While the market value of these homes would probably be at least $500,000, Habitat's buyers will be paying anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000, depending on their income level, Jensen said. It takes the nonprofit quite a while to select its homeowners, anticipating a long-term relationship.
"Not only do they have to have a demonstrated need but they have to be willing to partner with Habitat and be part of the community," she said. "The last thing we want to do is set anyone up for failure."
The new homeowners are taught the differences between owning a home and renting, she said.
For Nathan Bellet, who is buying one of the three-bedroom duplexes and will live there with his 6-year-old daughter Moriah and 3-year old son Zev, his new place means staying in his hometown. Bellet's parents live in Walnut Creek and he currently lives with them; it's where his "support structure" is, he said.
Because of the high demand, Bellet says house prices near his soon-to-be home have jumped in the last two years to $900,000.
"It's just ridiculous," he said. Buying "wouldn't have been a possibility as a young family."
Habitat requires owners put in 500 hours of "sweat equity" to qualify to own a home, so each homeowner has spent time helping build their soon-to-be houses.
These homes are environmentally friendly, certified by the GreenPoint Rated system, with Energy Star appliances and solar panels thanks to a grant from Pacific Gas and Electric.
While the houses are basically finished, the loan and escrow takes longer than a traditional home purchase, Jensen said. If a buyer decides to sell in the future, Habitat always gets the first chance to buy the house back.
Whenever Melero gets the green light to move in, she is ready.
"Even if I only have a toothbrush in my hand, I am going," she said.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.