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Determination helps woman become first-time homeowner

By SARAH ANTONACCI
STAFF WRITER

It was hard to tell if Karen Wordelmann was more excited about her new house Sunday or the firefighters who gave her a ride to see it.

"Be still my heart. It's about 110 degrees, and now I'm having hot flashes,"she said as three firefighters left her bedroom after shaking her hand, getting their photos taken with her and saying goodbye.

The firefighters picked Wordelmann up at her Bluebird Court apartment and gave her a ride to her new home in the Wedgewood Terrace mobile home park, where she was greeted by Springfield's own version of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Wordelmann at age 3 was the poster child for the United Cerebral Palsy campaign. Now at age 51, she is a homeowner for the first time.

For the past several months, Wordelmann's boss at the Illinois Employment and Training Center, Brenda Patterson, has been contacting relatives, friends, co-workers, local building suppliers and others to help Wordelmann realize her dream of home ownership.

When she came through the door of her new home Sunday, she was overwhelmed.

"I'm speechless," she said. "I never expected any of this. This is a palace, and it's mine."

About 50 people toured the home, each of them talking about how special Wordelmann is and how she deserved a special place. While she knew there were changes being made, including the ramp and widening of the doors that was thanks to a low-interest loan through the TechConnect program, she had no idea how extensive the work would be.

Co-workers landscaped the outside. Patterson's brother, Bob Harmening, and his friend, Willy Baum, among others, donated hundreds of hours taking down wallpaper, painting, hanging borders, putting down new floors, building a ramp and installing a wheelchair accessible bathroom.

There is an eat-in kitchen, living room, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. One of the three bedrooms has been converted into an office with a new computer. There is new furniture, and even a Christmas tree to celebrate the occasion. There is also a brand new grill, something Wordelmann said she was especially looking forward to. "I'm just shocked," she said.

For the past 20 years, Wordelmann has lived in an apartment on Bluebird Court that was built especially for her. At first, the area was beautiful. Friends and family came for visits, and her personal assistant came by several times a day. But as time passed, the crime rate rose. Eventually, no one would come. Her caregiver, afraid to drive her own vehicle, would take the bus.

"Finding personal assistants is hard - she's been with me four years," Wordelmann said. "Some people I hired from the apartment building turned out to be crack addicts and stole from me, made me late for work. So, I don't have them anymore."

She said that when her Access Springfield bus comes, people hang on it, knock on the windows and harass riders and drivers.

"No one wants to pick me up or drop me off any more. The neighborhood I live in is extremely undesirable. You can't park a car there without being bothered. There's a lot of drug traffic and guns are visible all the time."

Police statistics show that on Bluebird Court and the 10 streets immediately nearby - an area that makes up sub-beat 414 for Springfield police - there were 2,546 calls for service in the past 12 months. The calls include a variety of crimes and complaints.

Wordelmann said she was "stuck in a rut."

Wordelmann has been looking a long time for a place of her own. Initially, she thought it would be financially out of reach.

Then, this spring, she found a mobile home in Wedgewood Terrace. The price, $30,000, was reasonable, but with the cost of accessibility changes seemed to put it out of reach.

Her mother stepped in with financial help, and Wordelmann applied for help through the TechConnect low-interest loan program of the Illinois Assistive Technology Project. The loan put home ownership within reach.

Sue Castles, loan program coordinator for the federally funded, not-for-profit organization, said there are several facets, including low-interest loans to the disabled for equipment, specially equipped vehicles, home modifications and items that will help the disabled work from their homes.

Castles said one of the biggest benefits to TechConnect is that it makes low-interest loans to the disabled, who may not always have the best credit. Often, a disabled person may have spent months in a nursing home, or someone took advantage of them because of their disability, or they got behind because they had to wait for Medicare or their insurance company to pay bills.

"We try not to base a decision solely on credit history," she said. "We try to look at the history of repayment, and if people can explain to us how disability has affected them not being able to pay bills on time." Now, Wordelmann's life is on the brink of a major change.

"I'm excited because it's the first time I've had the chance to own my own home," she said. "Now my friends will come over and my family can come visit. I can cook out, and my grills won't get stolen. I can sit on my porch at night, grill out."

Robin Benson of the Statewide Independent Living Council agreed it's difficult for disabled people in Springfield to find affordable housing.

"I work with people every day. It's a challenge every day to find someplace to live. I agree, there just isn't enough. We're putting out an appeal to builders in the area to build accessible houses," she said.

There are some - such as the Springfield Housing Authority, TSP Hope, Habitat for Humanity and others - who are making strides. But Benson said that, according to the 2000 census, there were 8,938 people living in Springfield who had physical disabilities. In addition, the population is aging.

"The time has come where the baby boomers are getting older, and we're going to need accessible housing," she said. "Our goal is to keep people out of nursing homes but to get people to live as independently as possible." Independence is a word Wordelmann knows well.

While family, friends and co-workers helped put her in a new home, she also is determined to succeed on her own.

"Karen works here by her own aggression. She came in here as a client," Patterson recalled. "Now, she's the disability navigator."

Both women recall the day five years ago when Wordelmann arrived at the door of the employment and training center on South Ninth Street.

She struggled to get the door open. The front counter of the building was so high that people couldn't see she was waiting in line. One person tripped over her wheelchair as they walked by.

Wordelmann was there to apply for unemployment from a temporary job and to work on a resume. She recalled a counselor at the Department of Rehabilitation Services gave her the book "What Color Is Your Parachute?" In it, she remembered, it advised people to go into an office, look around. If you see something that needs to be done, that you can do - tell the employer.

"I heard that DORS was giving equipment to unemployment offices - equipment to help people with disabilities get jobs, and I wanted to do my resume," she said. "I was looking around and didn't see any of the assistive technology around."

So, she started asking questions. And, when she did, office staff went to the back of the office and got Patterson.

"We didn't handle the disabled. Karen said 'I'm looking for a job and I'm frustrated.' I said, 'How can we help you?' And, she looked around at all this equipment we weren't using, and said she could do it. She just doesn't let up." Wordelmann started as an intern and got a full-time job.

Patterson and Wordelmann became good friends, too.

"Over the years, her independence has waned, but her dedication and endurance have not," Patterson said of her friend who has used a wheelchair since she was in her early teens and who graduated from Chicago public schools and from college.

And while Wordelmann could rely on aid from the government, she chooses to work. She also passes that message on to others.

"Working heightens your self esteem and gives you a purpose for existence and not on the welfare rolls. There are more benefits to working. I have a job, and this is what I do. During times I didn't have a job, I was in the house all the time, watching soaps with nothing to do besides staring at four walls."

Sarah Antonacci can be reached at 788-1529 or sarah.antonacci@sj-r.com.

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Trailer parks see new interest in tough economic times

By Adam Jadhav
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

FENTON - Dave Diekmann sat at his dining room table recently musing about the trappings of home: pictures on the walls, a grill on the deck, a neatly trimmed lawn, kids playing video games in separate rooms, a giant mop of a white cocker spaniel flopping around on the floor.

All of that seemed out of reach last spring when real estate agents told Diekmann and his girlfriend, Sherri Ross, that having a house of their own wasn't an option, given their mediocre credit and the gloomy market. Better find a rental and wait it out.

But they wanted to move in together, they wanted room for Ross' three sons, a yard and a neighborhood, and they specifically didn't want to share walls and halls in an apartment building.

They found a solution in the place they least expected. They joined the growing population of people in these tough economic times who turn to a much-derided and often-overlooked affordable housing option: the mobile home park.

Seated at his dining table earlier this month, Diekmann was almost gloating over the find. He lives in the higher-end park Chancellor Farms, near state Highways 141 and 21, where garbage stays in bins and the grass is cut weekly.

"We all know the stereotype of trailer trash, but this isn't that," he said. "If it weren't for this, we'd be stuck in a ratty place somewhere.

Mobile home sales declined sharply in recent years as loans for brick-and-mortar homes were easy to come by. In one barometer, the Federal Housing Administration saw participation in its mobile home loan insurance program fall from almost 8,285 new participants in 1988 to just 1,377 in 2007.

But the tanking economy and frozen credit markets have sparked new interest in affordable housing; in 2008, the number of FHA insured mobile home loans rose almost 14 percent, to 1,569.

The manufactured housing industry - salespeople prefer the term to mobile home - is predicting a renaissance. At Bropfs Mobile Home Sales, a popular dealership in St. Charles, more customers report being pinched by the economy.

"We're experiencing more people that are coming in that are basically coming from situations where foreclosure situations, they can't afford a traditional house, they just don't have the credit," said Mac McCoy, a Bropfs salesman. "We've seen an extra 10 to 15 percent in that category. We expect that to increase. I don't see how it could not go up."

The rate of growth will be determined, in part, by a market that remains very much in flux, said Jay McCanless, an independent senior analyst who watches the manufactured housing industry for FTN Midwest Securities.

McCanless said the glut of foreclosed homes on the market at fire-sale prices could provide more competition for mobile homes, if buyers have the credit.

"There's definitely the potential that manufactured housing could see a pickup with the need for affordable housing," McCanless said. "But conditions in this market will determine how much that might be."

Buyers also must get over the stereotype of a mobile home community: dingy, flimsy metal trailers, grass up to the windows, meth labs around the corner. Mobile homes remain a small portion of all housing in the country - 6.7 percent as of 2007 according to U.S. Census estimates.

Tom Hagar, executive director of the Missouri Manufactured Housing Association, said he understands the stigma but manufactured homes today vary widely, from the models of the 1970s to up-to-date sectionals that can be customized and cost nearly the price of a traditional home and are built to federal codes.

And, Hagar said, as in any other community - from the cul-de-sac to the high rise - management, price and socioeconomic factors play a role in determining quality. Some low-rent parks exist, but so do high-end communities.

"Too often, people don't look at it as an option because they're only familiar with the negative side," Hagar said.

Last winter, Diekmann and Ross decided to move in together, but when they checked with real estate agents credit ratings got in the way. Diekmann never owned a credit card and had never built up a rating, he said. Ross' credit score also wasn't going to get them a payment they could afford.

The couple refused to rent. "I was just tired of paying somebody else's house payment," Ross said.

An online classified ad caught their attention: A mobile home community with a clubhouse, playground, swimming pool and strict rules. The park's owners, MHPI Inc., have more than 40 mobile home communities in the Midwest and provided financing that was forgiving of Diekmann's and Ross' credit woes.

Without that aid, Diekmann and Ross probably wouldn't have been able to buy. People with poor credit have trouble these days finding an affordable loan for a home, mobile or not.

The industry is looking tentatively to the FHA insurance program for help. As part of the massive housing bill Congress passed last fall, the FHA insurance program also is set to raise loan limits, ease some guidelines and possibly provide down payment assistance.

Diekmann and Ross bought a double-wide mobile home - three bedrooms, two baths, living room, dining room, kitchen - on a double lot. Their mortgage on an 11-year loan is $496 a month; the land rents for another $342 monthly.

A comparable apartment would cost hundreds more a month, something not feasible on the couple's income. Diekmann works as a lawn care contractor; Ross on a commercial refrigeration assembly line. Diekmann estimated they bring in about $55,000 in a good year.

The managers at the park conduct background checks on new residents and mandate regular house maintenance and yard care. Toys are picked up. Dogs are supervised. Trash left out and junk in the yard - say, a car on cinder blocks - are not tolerated.

"It's like a subdivision. It's really like any other neighborhood," said Ted Weier, general manager for the sales company responsible for filling vacancies.

A clubhouse, pool and playground sit at the entrance. Black lampposts in every yard turn on in the evening.

Mike Harris, a heating and cooling maintenance man, admitted he was skeptical when he first moved in to Chancellor Farms to take care of his ailing father. He planned to move his dad out as quickly as possible.

"At first, to even tell people I lived in a trailer park was kind of embarrassing," he said, sitting in his driveway working out a dent on his BMW 525 si.

Harris has been there eight years. He has built a garden fountain and pond. He has barbecues with friends in the summer. Far from cramped, he has a four-poster in the bedroom and a hot tub in the bath.

And he has no intention of leaving.

ajadhav@post-dispatch.com | 314-809-9423

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