A fence in front of a two-story yellow house
One of the homes in Live Oak’s new Rodeo Creek Court development, where the Politte family will soon be first-time homeowners.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

CZU family approved for new home in Habitat for Humanity development

Over a year after losing their rental home in the CZU Lightning Complex fire, Luke Politte and Amber Julien — along with son Leo and two dogs — will finally have a permanent spot to land, thanks to Habitat for Humanity. “It’s like a huge weight has been lifted off of our shoulders,” Julien said.

Luke Politte is an instructional aide at Davenport’s Pacific Elementary School, and his wife, Amber Julien, is a special education, math and science teacher at Live Oak’s Shoreline Middle School. Last year, they lost their Davenport rental home, one they had been in for two years, in the CZU Lightning Complex fire.

But this month, the family — including son Leo and dogs Waylon and Elvis — was selected for one of six Habitat for Humanity homes in Live Oak. Their address has gone from a North Coast rental — built about 100 years ago and originally used to cure cheese from the nearby Gianone Dairy Farm — to owning in a brand-new development on Rodeo Creek Court.

“When we got the Swanton House, we felt like we’d won the lottery — we kind of feel like we’re winning the lottery again,” Julien said.

Family of three — one man, one woman, one son — in front of their home
The Politte family — Luke, Amber Julien and son Leo — lived in the “Cheese House” in Davenport for two years prior to the CZU fire. Now they are able to plan for a new and permanent home in Live Oak as one of the latest Habitat for Humanity recipients.
(Courtesy of Amber Julien)

Although the fire destroyed the family’s four closest neighbors’ homes, the Swanton Road house remained standing, but was heavily smoke damaged and without power or water for over nine months. The Politte family stayed in a recreational vehicle at Julien’s sister’s home, awaiting the chance to go back — but were told by their landlord the house was needed for their family members, who were also displaced by CZU.

“I thought Swanton was my forever home … this was the first place I’d loved to live since I left my parents’ house,” Politte said.

By chance, a coworker told Julien about the Habitat application. In assessing the application qualifications, she “began to see a glimpse of hope at finding permanent housing,” and sent in the pre-application in March, receiving approval. From then, the family heard little until getting the good news this month, and are planning next steps.

“I’m really excited to be living in the community I work in,” Julien said.

Habitat’s family services manager, Everardo Jaime Jr., said the aftereffects of the fire are still very much present, and the Politte family is just one example of that reality. The homes are not only for CZU families, but those who qualify for Habitat for Humanity — such as by showing they earn 50 to 80% of average market income and verifying their ability to pay no more than 30% of their gross monthly income on their monthly housing payment — are given priority in the approval process.

“There were a number of CZU families reaching out directly after — we do still give priority to families affected by the fires,” he said.

Fire destroyed area surrounding a home
The Cheese House remained standing after the CZU fire, but was heavily smoke-damaged and without water or power for nine months.
(Courtesy of Amber Julien)

Once approved, homeowners will have to put in 500 hours of “sweat equity” over the course of 12 months, either at the construction site, volunteering as part of the ReStore program, or working with Habitat to assist in events or bring construction crews’ lunches.

The amount of mortgage the families borrow is far below the actual market value of the home, which decreases the monthly payments to something Habitat families can afford. The remaining portion of the cost of the home is funded by a variety of sources, which the homeowners are not responsible for.

If they choose to sell the property, however, the homeowners have to give Habitat the first chance to buy it back. Any money coming from the sale, though, would be based on the percent of the property — the equity — actually paid for by the homeowners.

Jamie said he thought it was terrific to see that new Habitat homeowners are so actively involved in the community.

“Teachers have a good pulse on their neighborhoods and in engaging in the communities themselves,” he said.

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This will be the first time the Polittes will own a home, and they are looking forward to being so close to the community they’ve fostered in Santa Cruz over the past 12 years.

“I never thought I could own a house in California as a teacher … it’s like a huge weight has been lifted off of our shoulders,” Julien said, with Politte noting that the Habitat house is the only reason “Amber gets to keep her job.”

Jamie said Habitat will accept applications for the remaining homes in the development through mid-November.

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