ORANGE, NJ – When Cristina Mateo emigrated from the Dominican Republic, she never thought of owning anything, not even a car, let alone a house. Some dreams, it seems, are just too big to envisage. Flash forward 22 years and here’s Cristina happily sharing her home with her family, a proud homeowner in Orange’s East Ward, a purchase made possible by the Orange Housing Development Corporation’s Home Ownership Program.

“When I came to this country, we didn’t speak any English and were basically homeless,” remembered Mateo. “We spent about six months sleeping on the floor in my cousin’s apartment. When we got our own apartment, our first bed was from the trash dumpster behind Walter G. Alexander Village on Parrow Street. Finally, we had the opportunity to live in a family unit from the Housing Authority.”

So began Mateo’s association with the Housing Authority of the City of Orange. She moved from resident to employee, first as a part-time bilingual clerk, then a bilingual tenant interviewer. Currently, she is a bilingual assistant housing manager for the senior building of 250 apartment units.

Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Along the way, Mateo earned an associate’s degree from Essex County College and two Bachelors of Art degrees from Rutgers. She is currently working toward a Master in Public Administration. She also serves in the Army National Guard and spent a year in Iraq.

Of course, the next logical step would be home ownership, and she attacked the process with the same single-mindedness as she does everything else. Her first step was to attend the home buyer program at Tri-City Peoples Corporation. The non-profit is dedicated to the social and economic self-sufficiency for the residents of Newark, East Orange, Irvington. She followed that with workshops at NJIT and TD Bank where she learned financial literacy. She saved for five years for her down payment through HACO’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program and applied for a VA loan. 

Earlier this year, she closed on her home that she had been renting from the OHDC in Orange’s East Ward, where she lives with husband, Israel Morales, and children, Chrystian, 19, Brand, 18, Yester, 14, Karen 12, Argeny, 8. A new addition to the family is expected at the end of the year.

“I struggled and I worked hard to overcome all the difficulties that I found myself getting into,” Mateo said. “Many times, we felt discouraged, but to be able to close! It was like wow! I couldn’t describe it. It was an instant feeling. It was very emotional.”

Mateo also enjoys a benefit that is the envy of every commuter. She can walk to work. “I don’t even need a parking space.”

The Family Self-Sufficiency Program is just one social service offered by HACO to help launch residents along the path to self-sufficiency. The housing authority also hosts job fairs and other workshops designed to help residents achieve a better life. HACO with its partner OHDC have transformed several rundown neighborhoods into vibrant communities for people to live in safety. Redevelopment projects on North Parrow Street and Oakwood Avenue, coupled with the extensive Dr. Walter G. Alexander Villages, have breathed new life in old places.

“Cristina is a shining example of what can be accomplished through hard work and determination,” said Dr. Walter McNeil, HACO’s executive director. “She has been an inspiration to both residents and co-workers. We wish her well in her new home.”

About the Orange Housing Authority

The City of Orange Housing Authority works to transform the City of Orange by providing safe, livable and affordable housing that promotes the development of communities. At the Orange Housing Authority, participants are not statistics, they are neighbors. The OHA knows the community and tailors programs to better serve the participant’s needs. Whether it is a search for housing, assistance with foreclosure or neighborhood development, the Orange Housing Authority stands ready to offer its services to all residents.