A Home for Jahnoya
December 21, 2003
The Toronto Star
When Janet Munroe found herself pregnant at age 23, she was in such denial she visited four doctors before the impact of the truth sank in.
"I kept thinking, 'how am I going to get through this?' she recalls.
Still living at home, she had worked her way through college, taking computer sciences and studying during her night shifts at Blockbuster Video or staying late on campus to finish assignments the day they were handed out.
But now, with her baby's father not on the scene, she felt her life was over.
"I was pretty depressed and labelled myself as a statistic," she says. ''But I was determined that I was not going to venture into welfare and neither was I going to fall back on my mother."
Munroe's mother Desna, 58, according to her daughter, is of the tough love school of thinking.
''You make your bed, you lie in it but it's what made me learn."
In June, 1999, Munroe gave birth to a beautiful little girl. She named her Jahnoya -Jamaican patois for "God knows you."
Three months later, Munroe was walking down Lawrence Ave. W. on her way to the Lawrence Plaza, pushing Jahnoya in her stroller, when she passed a big billboard outside the former Canada Mortgage and Housing head office building near Allen Rd. It advertised a new community was coming to the site to be called The Shermount – 380 apartments and 51 three-bedroom condo townhouses. The prices for the townhouses started at $169,000.
'Yeah right.' That was my immediate reaction," Munroe says with a chuckle.
"I knew enough from hearing friends talk that townhouses were in the twos and threes (hundred thousands), not the ones." As she went about her business in the mall, Munroe couldn't get the billboard out of her head. On the way back, she saw that she hadn't misread the sign. She wrote down the phone number and called.
The project was being handled by Options for Homes, a non-profit development corporation building no-frills condos and townhouses that sell for below market rates.
Munroe decided to attend an Options information session. These sessions, other than a simple direct-mail flyer and site billboards, are Options' only form of marketing.
The sessions are held on weekends in simple venues. In this case, the empty CMHC building was where Munroe and other interested buyers gathered to watch a promotional video.
"The video had such heart," says Munroe. "And I thought, 'Holy Toledo! There are people who actually bought.' There was a minister talking about how Options made it possible for his family to own their first house. And the people seemed so genuine.
"But I was worried about the Alternatives Mortgage, which I didn't understand. 'Is it going to come and get me later?' I wondered"
The Alternatives Mortgage helps people put together a down payment by including a built-in second mortgage that represents the difference between the cost of building the unit and its market value - not cash. This second mortgage, held by Home Ownership Alternatives Non-Profit Corp., is equal to 15 per cent of the purchase price and prevents someone from buying at the affordable rate and turning around flipping the home at market price.
The second mortgage, plus its appreciated value, must be repaid when the purchaser sells the unit.
Proceeds from the second mortgage go right back into an affordable housing project.
Still sceptical, Munroe decided to check to see if the Options' offices really existed. They did plus a wall of newspaper clippings testifying to the success of previous projects. So she broached the subject with her mother.
"I was making $33,000 (a year) and needed $51,000 to qualify for a mortgage. I knew what I had to do. I had to get my mom to co-sign," Munroe explains. "I had a daughter. She is my purpose; she's the one who inspires me. It was time to do something with my life instead of bouncing from one techie job to another with no benefits.
"I had listened to older people I knew say, 'lf I had my time over again, I would never throw all that money away on rent.' I wanted to learn from their mistakes. So I told my mom I saw an opportunity to own my own house."
Her mother's response was less than enthusiastic. ''You're so young, so naive," she said. "How can you own on your income? How do you know that the contractor won't disappear once you put you money in? How can you put money down on something that isn't there?"
Munroe understood her mother's apprehension. Ten years before she lost her own house in a divorce and was wary of going through a bad experience again.
"I told her, 'Hear me out, and if you're not comfortable, I will find another way.' She saw how serious I was. I would have worked two jobs if I had to. Or dug deep into my pride and approached another family member," says Munroe.
In the end, her mother, recognizing her daughter's determination, agreed to accompany Munroe to a meeting with the Options team.
Her concerns satisfactorily addressed - and bringing the stability of a 3-year career as manager at a downtown hotel - she co-signed for the mortgage for Munroe's unbuilt 1,165-square-foot, $183,432 home.
But Munroe knew her responsibilities were only beginning. She had to find a better job and she had to learn how to drive.
One winter of negotiating daycare, grocery shopping and doctor's appointments with a baby and stroller on foot and by public transit was the turning point. Although she saw this as an onerous and dreaded task, she bought a l-year-old car and took driving lessons.
There were also days when the stress and the bills took their toll, as Munroe pursued assignments through temporary agencies. But she had a goal in mind: She took the assignments knowing that they would get her noticed and would be the quickest route to a good job.
And her strategy paid off when she landed a job at Queen's Park, capitalizing on her technical skills, for the Ontario Ministry of Health.
''I worked like the dickens because I knew at the end of the six-month assignment I had to land a full-time contract. So I put in that extra oomph," she says brightly.
She is now on staff full-time at the Ontario Ministry of Finance, coordinating budget allocations for the ministry's database. Munroe earns $45,000 a year and her mom, who will be living with her, will help her with household expenses.
''I had to make it work because I now had a house. And I had to have stability because I have a daughter. I had to think of the implications. Things I never cared about before like benefits and like driving now made sense," Munroe explains. "It was a whole new picture for me. If I own my own house and then pay it off, my daughter will have something (for the future). It's my investment."
It took three years for the project to be completed, including a series of delays that set the project back more than a year. Finally, the official launch and press conference took place Nov. 13, a week prior to when residents began moving in.
Munroe, along with Minister of Transportation David Collenette who is also responsible for Canada Lands and CMHC and other Canada Lands officials, was asked to speak to the media at the ceremony.
"I didn't know that every last TV station would be there," Munroe recalls. "I was so nervous I was shaking and I have no recollection what I said."
She spoke of the odds against a single mother in her position ever being able to own a house. Her heartfelt words not only made every TV newscast that night, but she had many in the audience in tears.
''If you would have told me, when I was 23, that with in a year I would own my own home, I would have said, 'Do you envision me winning the lottery?' " she told the crowd.
"My mom was so proud. She said, 'You have come such a long way.' I feel like I'm the child that put her back into a house," says Munroe, who is still living with her mother in a rented home.
"I had always thought that whatever you are thrown, that's where you have to stay. I never would have imagined that I would have the confidence I have today, or the diligence to apply myself and perform the way I have at work. I have such a sense of pride since I wrote that cheque. It made me think there is nothing else 1 can't do.
"When I say to my daughter, 'You can do it if you try: I have to walk the walk."
Last week, Munroe received a letter confirming her move-in date of Feb. 3.
As she happily shops for pink blankets and sheets for her daughter's room, Jahnoya is excitedly telling all her friends at daycare that mommy and Santa are giving her a pink bedroom for Christmas.
"I am starting the New Year knowing I have conquered another milestone in my life,"
Munroe says with pride. "It's the best Christmas present of all and it doesn't need a fancy bow because it's about feelings of success and accomplishment and you can't put a price on that."'
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