Michelle Conner of Grace Like Rain Ministries hopes to make her vision of building an affordable housing community for families in Denton a reality this year.

The nonprofit has the land. Now they’re just waiting on proper zoning and funding to build the Love First Community, a 15.7-acre community of 50 to 60 homes to house families with children in transition and provide them with life skills classes. Conner, the founder and now board president, said rent for these tenants will be close to $600 — about half of what the current market price is.

Conner said the idea came from her realization that feeling like part of a community can help lift people up who are struggling with poverty and homelessness. It’s a project she estimated will cost $20 million.

“As we were walking alongside these families [when we started], we were also taking on these kids,” Conner said. “They were coming back and forth from mom to us and what we began to see is the moms were truly missing community. … I was a single mom when I started off with my first baby. I had cancer 10 years ago. I think of the hard times in my life and we would not have made it through those times as strong as we did if it wasn’t for the support of friends, family, the church and my community.”

Conner recently stepped down as the CEO and moved into the role of president of the Grace Like Rain Ministries board. John D. Montoya, who has worked in Denton nonprofits since 2009, took on the role of CEO on June 1.

Before coming to Grace Like Rain Ministries, Montoya was the CEO at Habitat for Humanity of Denton County. The organization builds homes for families in need and has built 103 homes in Denton County since its founding in 1994, according to its website. The 100th family moved into their new home in early 2019.

Montoya worked in law enforcement for 13 years but felt the need to do something more with his life. He said he went back to school and got a second bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of New Mexico, followed by a doctorate’s degree in clinical psychology at the University of North Texas.

“I fell in love with the community and began volunteering,” Montoya said. “I took a break from school in 2013-ish, started moving into nonprofit work and just really got into working with families and really seeing the resilience in families and admiring the strength of these working families.”

During his time at Habitat for Humanity, Montoya said he saw the great need for affordable housing.

“Housing costs are through the roof and families are deciding whether or not to buy essentials or pay the rent,” Montoya said. “It’s a difficult time for families, and it was then, too, when I moved into that role.”

Conner said people need a place to call home.

“If you don’t have a safe place to call home, then it’s really hard to even think about getting a job or what the next step is because there’s no safe haven,” she said.

Conner said God gave her the vision for the Love First Community in 2016.

“I live in a great community of open space, there are people building relationships,” she said. “I started thinking, why do we not have [more] communities, actively engaging in relationships and supportive relationships?”

She said she knew one of the biggest hurdles would be to find land.

“That’s when God brought us a donor,” Conner said. “Sixteen acres on East McKinney and Mayhill, donated in 2019. At that point, preliminary dream drawings became a reality. We actually have property we can draw real drawings on.”

A rendering of the community shows rows of houses with an event hall near the center. The nonprofit will also have an administration and daycare building on site.

Lack of access to child care is one of the three barriers Conner said she noticed in families struggling with poverty or homelessness, noting it’s hard to get and maintain a job when your children aren’t being looked after while you’re on the clock. Affordable housing and reliable transportation are the other two barriers.

She said they’re estimating the project will cost about $20 million. While they haven’t officially begun to fundraise, Conner said they’re actively prospecting.

“We’re looking at ways to reduce the costs, but the blanket price is that,” she said. “As far as raising, we have not started yet, although we do have and have received grants. If you consider land as a donation for this endeavor, that’s roughly $3.8 million value of the land as a contribution.”

Montoya said it’s amazing how everything has come together.

“The speed of which things have been moving is phenomenal,” he said. “[Conner] started this organization back in 2016. It’s now 2021 and we are at the stages of actually potentially putting shovels in the ground within three to six months. That is something that just doesn’t happen every day. ... That really speaks to the community support that we see and have all around us.”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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