EDMONTON -- Dozens of families at Carter Place, a southeast Edmonton Habitat for Humanity housing complex are taking legal action against the charity. They claim their deal has changed, possibly forcing them out of homes they helped build with their own hands.

Former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn helped kick off construction at the complex in 2017.

Habitat families don’t need a down payment; instead, they’re required to put in 500 hours of volunteering.

Now, dozens of families feel they’re being forced out of the homes they helped build, because of a change to habitat’s mortgage agreements.

“We have good neighbours, our kids already just have many friends here,” said Yonas Agonafir, a Carter Place resident.

“The area, we love it, the house, everything is good here, but now we’re gonna lose everything again.”

When they applied, habitat advertised zero interest mortgages, with monthly payments based on income not exceeding 30 per cent of a family’s earnings.

The deal is now different. The mortgage is split into two. The first, still interest free. The second, through Service Credit Union, with below-market interest.

“They just figured they could switch up the model on us last minute and expect us to accept it, and you’re messing with our lives,” said Carema Bouanani, a Carter Place resident.

Bouanani is a single mother and cancer survivor. If she doesn’t sign the new mortgage, her dream of homeownership through habitat - dies.

“Every family worked hard for their position to get into their home, and I think they deserve to have that home because they did what they were supposed to do,” Bounani said.

“End of the day, the courts have to decide,” said lawyer Avnish Nanda.

Nanda represents 57 families suing Habitat for Humanity Edmonton.

They claim the organization unfairly changed the deal, leaving many who are unlikely to be approved for loans, in limbo.

“I never got to enjoy my home,” Bounani said. “I never got to walk inside the doors and experience homeownership.”

For habitat, the change is about survival. The charity is $27 million in the red.

And says without the new model, habitat would have to stop building.

“It would not have been pretty, but we would have figured something out, it just would have been a very different habitat for humanity than it is today,” said Chris Bruce, board chair for Habitat for Humanity.

Bruce says habitat’s mortgage model changes regularly. He believes this new deal is best for everyone.

“It’s entirely possible that most families will be better off,” Bruce said.

He says families’ monthly payments won’t change, the loan will help them build credit, and families benefit if their home gains value by the time they sell it.

“We are very confident that we’ve done the right thing, that we’re treating people the right way,” Bruce said.

Darlene Dudley’s experience backs up that claim; she signed her mortgage with habitat last fall.

“My payment didn’t change, so that was the first big concern. And then the second, I mean the absolute bonus is what it’s done for my credit,” she said.

Others who don’t qualify for the loan will have to pick up their lives - and try to find somewhere else to live.

“It’s a pandemic time, with kids, it’s, it’s too much,” Agonafir said.

Habitat is offering to pay a settlement to families who can’t make it work, but it’s reduced if they’re not out by the end of June.

They also have to agree to drop out of the lawsuit, and not speak poorly of the charity if they want the money.