A wrong phone number started Tawana Reliford down the long, steep road to owning her own home.

The single mother and her six children were renting a comfortable house in West St. Paul. The landlord wasn't able to make payments, and the home was in foreclosure. Reliford had 30 days to find a new place to live.

"I saw an ad for a four-bedroom home, so I called," she said. "I dialed the wrong number, and someone from MCASA answered the phone. She asked if I wanted to own a home someday."

MCASA is a Model Cities program started in 2004 to provide affordable homes for low- and moderate-income families. MCASA can get families into homes quickly because it offers rent-to-own or contract-for-deed options until prospective owners can qualify for a mortgage.

At the same time, MCASA is improving blighted blocks by acquiring homes, often vacant and rundown foreclosed properties, fixing them up and selling them to first-time homebuyers who have gone through counseling and classes.

A year after that fortuitous phone call, Reliford has obtained a mortgage and now owns a completely rehabbed stucco four-bedroom home in St. Paul's Aurora St. Anthony neighborhood.

"I never thought about buying a house," said Reliford, who grew up in the Chicago housing projects. "No one else in my family has owned a home. But then it started to hit me that it was possible."

It was possible with Reliford's steadfast resolve, an attentive group of MCASA staffers and a loan officer at Wintrust Mortgage.

Nene Matey-keke, an MCASA project manager, walked Reliford through the application process so she could move into the St. Paul home under the rent-to-own option. She worked with Osborne Strickland, a pre-purchase counselor who helped her raise her credit score so she could apply for a loan. She spent a Saturday at an all-day Home Stretch first-time-homebuyer workshop. Loan officer Doneva Carter, who worked at Wintrust Mortgage in Maple Grove at the time, helped her tap into first-time-homebuyer financial assistance programs and complete the application forms for a smooth closing.

'We all cried' at the closing

"Tawana had a great work ethic and positive attitude," said Matey-keke. "It's a lot of paperwork, a lifestyle adjustment and responsibility."

Still Reliford admits she felt overwhelmed and was close to giving up.

"At times, it was so much work that I thought maybe it wasn't meant to be," said Reliford, who is a personal banker for U.S. Bank. "But everyone at my church encouraged me and told me to hang in there."

At the closing in June, Reliford's hard work was rewarded -- she officially was a homeowner. For her, it was more than a sedate paper-signing session. "My two oldest daughters went with me to the closing," she recalled. "We all cried at the end."

Best of all, her monthly payment is less than what she paid to rent the last house for her family. "This was such a big accomplishment for me and it shows my kids that anything is possible," she said.

Inside the freshly renovated home, Reliford points out all the shiny new features she really appreciates: a refrigerator that makes ice, wood floors, central air conditioning and so many kitchen cabinets she hasn't filled them all yet.

She's also excited to paint every room any color she desires, which she couldn't do in rental property. "Jasmine wants a green bedroom," she said referring to her youngest daughter. (Her other two daughters are now college students.)

Son Rashon Hassell, age 5, is in love with the home's back yard. "I like to make snow angels," he said. "And have snowball fights with my brothers."

Reliford has invited her extended family over for the holidays. "I like entertaining even more because it's easy to make dinner in the kitchen and I have lots of counter space for cakes and pies," she said.

But her mother, who has passed away, won't be there.

"I wish my mother would have been alive to see me buy a home," Reliford said with tears in her eyes. "She would have been proud of me."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619