For the price of a mortgage and a couple hundred hours of “sweat equity,” Habitat for Humanity looks to give a few local families new homes within two years.

The Southern Santa Barbara County office of the nonprofit organization, which works to improve the living conditions of poorer families, is planning to begin construction of four new homes in the area later this year. In a press conference last week, Southern Santa Barbara County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Joyce McCullough said the residences are already hotly contested even though the complex is not yet built.

“In Santa Barbara, one of the nation’s most beautiful and affluent communities, we currently have nearly 200 families on our waiting list who live in unhealthy, overcrowded conditions due to the lack of affordable housing,” McCullough said.

Five orientation meetings for prospective applicants will take place throughout the month of February, followed by a selection process to determine which families will reside on San Pascual Street, the site of the imminent construction. McCullough said that selection process serves as a gateway to elevate impoverished members of the local community.

“These orientation meetings provide a rare opportunity for families to break the cycle of poverty, restoring hope and dignity that poverty can strip away,” McCullough said.

Habitat for Humanity mandates that families meet certain criteria in order to qualify for consideration for one of the new homes. A prospective candidate must have lived or worked in the community for at least a year and have the ability to pay a mortgage. The mortgage is paid to Habitat for Humanity, which then sets the payments aside to fund future housing projects. Each adult member is also required to contribute 250 hours of “sweat equity” – the organization’s term for participant labor – to the construction of the home.

Habitat for Humanity recently acquired 6,250 square-feet of property on San Pascual Street, where they plan to construct three 2-bedroom homes and one 1-bedroom home, all within a single apartment complex. The organization expects to house between 12 and 14 people in the allotted space.

Additionally, McCullough said the biggest obstacle in housing Santa Barbara families was finding space.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is finding suitable land to build on, since we have such a scarcity in the area,” McCullough said.

The houses are projected for completion in 18 to 24 months, at which point the selected families can purchase them with the help of interest-free loans, also provided by Habitat for Humanity. McCullough said that it is gratifying for many families to participate in the project and then finally own a home.

“The most rewarding part of working for Habitat for Humanity is watching the families just blossom as they build their homes and are finally able to achieve that dream of home ownership,” McCullough said.

Habitat for Humanity completed its first major Santa Barbara housing project in 2007 with the construction of three condominiums on Via Lucero. McCullough said they will continue their work in Santa Barbara in the future as they find property to build upon.

“We are committed to continuing the work in Santa Barbara of finding suitable land and building up to our capacity,” McCullough said.