By Author's name withheld
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Illustration by Brian Lopez-Santos, 18, Marshall HS

My parents always dreamed of owning a home. And I wanted us to have a house too, so I could have my own room. But now that we have our home it hasn’t been the dream we had imagined.

When I was young, my dad, mom, little sister and I lived in an apartment that was just one room. Then we moved to a one-bedroom apartment; it was four of us until my mom had my little brother in 2002. Then it was five people jammed into our tiny apartment.

We had one dresser for everyone. We had a bunk bed in the bedroom. I slept on the top and my mom, sister and brother slept on the bottom and my dad slept in the living room on the couch. We even had to move my favorite toy—a plastic kitchen set—outside. I played with it a lot less after that, once the spiders started living inside it.

In 2006 when I was 12, our close friends in our apartment complex bought a house and a few months later my dad decided we should try to buy a house, too. My uncle had bought a house a few years before that when home prices were lower. He told my dad that if he wanted to get a house he should buy one soon, before homes got too expensive.

My uncle gave my dad the number of his real estate agent and a few days later my dad set up an appointment. I didn’t know how we could afford a house. My dad paints houses and my mom works at a clothing factory, so we don’t have a lot of money. I thought that if we had enough money we would already be living in a house or at least own a car nicer than our used Toyota Corolla.

We went to a real estate office in Norwalk and even though I had my doubts, I was excited. I thought, “I’m going to get my own room.” That’s what I had wanted since my sister was born when I was 4. The agent wore a dress shirt, a tie and dress pants. He shook my dad’s and mom’s hands and was smiling. He seemed very professional.

My parents told him that they wanted a house with at least two bedrooms in a safe neighborhood with a market close by. They had figured out that $600,000 was the most they could pay. My parents also wanted apartments in the back so they could rent those out to help pay for the house.

When he asked about their jobs and how much they earned, I thought, “Now he’s going to tell them they should wait a few years.” But he said, “Yeah, we could work with this.”

If a real estate agent thought we could afford it, then I thought we could do it. We all looked at each other and smiled. The real estate agent said that he would get back to us in a few days.

I’ve always wanted my own room

On the drive home I imagined painting my bedroom purple and getting my own bed and TV. And I could finally get away from my sister. She stole my clothes and didn’t give me any privacy.

A few weeks later the agent showed us a couple houses. One cost around $450,000 and the other $500,000. The prices seemed so extreme to me, especially for the one that needed a new paint job and had a smaller living room than our apartment.

Then the agent showed us a beautiful house in Lynwood. The living room and kitchen were big, it had two bedrooms (which meant one for me—my mom promised!) and there was a backyard. My mom was already pointing out where she would put the couches and the television and how she would paint the walls green. There were also three apartments in the back. We all fell in love with the house.

But when my dad told me the house was $520,000, I cringed. I knew we were paying only $540 a month in rent. How could we afford a house that cost that much? My dad didn’t seem worried, though, so that made my worries disappear.

My dad called the agent to talk about how we could afford it. When we met with him later, the agent still seemed confident. My parents nodded along as he assured them and mentioned words like “credit” and “mortgage.” I was so confused by the complicated financial terms that I wondered, “Do my parents even know what this guy is trying to say?”

During the car ride after, I asked my parents if they were sure we could afford it and they said, “Yeah, the guy said we can, so we believe it, too.” Eventually my parents’ faith in the agent convinced me.

The following weeks, the agent helped my parents get a home loan, which is called a mortgage. But I could see my parents hesitate when they learned that it would cost $4,000 a month. They make only $3,200 a month. They were hoping to get another $2,000 from renting the apartments. I told my parents “You cannot do it.” But they told me to be quiet.

During the next few days the agent told us the price was raised to $550,000. When I heard this, I told my parents to search for another house. I wanted a house with my own room, but I thought that living in a home we could afford was more important. I guess the agent had convinced them though, because they told me the same thing he told them: “We can make it work.”

Two months later, we got the loan. In September 2006 we moved in and I put my worries aside because it was so exciting. We painted the rooms; mine was purple just like I had planned. And we had so much space. In our old apartment, you couldn’t see the TV when you sat on one side of the loveseat because we had to put it so close to the TV. But in our house you can see the television no matter where you sit. But for me the best part was getting my own bed (no more bunk bed), dresser and closet in my own room.

At first things were great. I could finally lock my bedroom door and keep my brother and sister out when I wanted to do homework, listen to music or be alone. Finally having a kitchen table meant we could talk about our days when we ate together, like families are supposed to.

Paying the bills was harder than we thought

But after a few months I started overhearing my mom and dad talking about the monthly payments. Although they were paid $1,500 rent from the apartments, that was $500 less than what my parents had hoped to get. That left just $700 a month for my family’s living expenses. I started thinking, “We shouldn’t have got the house.”

My family had to be smart and cut back some expenses so we could pay the mortgage. We stopped eating out every Sunday at our favorite Salvadoran restaurant. My mom started yelling at everybody to make sure we turn off lights. And I feel like I have lived on the bus so my parents don’t have to drive me places and pay for gas. I became afraid of asking my parents for money, because they always responded, “Why are you trying to waste more money?” I’ve seen one movie at the theaters in the last couple years, and my friend paid for my ticket.

Sometimes even when I’ve had to ask for school supplies my dad says, “You need stuff again? Didn’t we just buy some?” My immediate reaction is to feel like he doesn’t care about my education. But I know he does, because both my parents tell me that I need to do well in school, so I can get a good job and not end up like them struggling to pay the bills.

About a year ago my mom told me that there were layoffs at the factory where she works. When I heard this, the problem became way more serious to me. What if she lost her job? If we couldn’t pay our mortgage, we would end up homeless. Since she mentioned the layoffs, I’ve thought about the possibility of being homeless more often, especially when I have to ask my mom for bus fare or when I see something on the news about the economy.

Around this time, the tenants in one of the apartments moved out. My parents were desperate to get a new tenant. I helped my mom by typing and printing “apartment for rent” signs, which she put up in laundromats. My parents seemed more worried than ever. Their usual talks about money turned into yelling arguments. When this happened, I would just lock myself in my room. After about four months of the apartment being vacant, someone finally moved in.

To continue to afford the house, my parents knew they had to lower their monthly loan payment. So last July they got their loan changed, saving us $400 a month. Now my parents pay $3,600. But even with the rent from the apartments, it’s still hard.

In January when it came time to plan my 16th birthday party I had dreams of a big party like my cousins had when they turned 15 or 16. One cousin had 250 guests in a banquet hall and a limo. I wanted a corset-style dress that puffed out at the bottom and a court of honor with seven girls and seven boys.

As I was naming people I wanted to invite my mom interrupted me. “You can’t invite that many people,” she said. “We’re going to have it in our backyard.”

What?! I was disappointed. But I understood that having money for the house was obviously more important and I appreciate that I had a party at all. In the end it was 50 people, no court, no limo, but I did get the dress I wanted and it was still really fun.

To help pay the bills my mom started working more hours recently. She used to work eight hours a day, five days a week at the clothing factory. But now she works 10 hours a day and on Saturdays to get more money. She seems more stressed and she’s always yelling at me and my siblings about little things, like me coming to L.A. Youth on Saturdays because that means she has to get a babysitter for my brother and sister and that costs money. Usually I take care of them when she’s at work.

I’m grateful my parents are trying hard to keep our home

I feel bad for my mom when I see her so stressed out. I try to help out by vacuuming, cleaning the living room and washing the dishes. I want to get a job and give some of the money to my parents. I understand that my parents are working really hard just to keep a roof over our heads, and I appreciate anything they are able to provide for me—even the small things like a new pair of shoes.

I sometimes try to block out the money situation by going to my room when I hear my parents talking about it. But I still think about money all the time. When my brother or sister talks about wanting a game or clothes, I always say, “And where’s the money for that?”

When I go to bed at night, I have mixed emotions. My parents got the house because they didn’t want to raise me and my brother and sister in our cramped old apartment, and I think it’s great that we have our own home. But I also think about the difficulties we have faced and are still facing. Sometimes I feel frustrated by the real estate system. Why did they give loans to families that couldn’t afford them?

Sometimes I worry that something big could happen, like more layoffs at my mom’s job. But I don’t see the cutbacks we have made as a bad thing. They have made us more responsible and I feel secure that we’ll be able to afford the house in the future. I don’t regret getting the house, I only worry sometimes that we could lose it.