PHOENIXVILLE Joseph Anthony "JoJo" Cusumano had been crossing off the days until Christmas on his calendar.
"There's no more days left," the 4-year-old announced as he rearranged the couple of gifts already under the tree in the living room Tuesday morning.
His mother, Diane Rhoads, looked over at the nearly 7-foot-tall Christmas tree, every inch of which was decorated with tinsel, candy canes, and ornaments, some of them handmade.
"This is the first actual Christmas tree we've been able to have in a long time," she said.
For three years, Rhoads and three of her children lived in a small motel room in Spring City. There, mold was etched on the walls, and Rhoads stayed up at night to make sure the bedbugs didn't crawl on her children while they slept.
Christmases came and went.
This year, the family is one of 36 that are spending their first holiday season in their new homes in the Fairview Village affordable housing development. The units were completed in August, and every unit, with a one-year lease, was occupied by early November.
On Tuesday afternoon, the three-bedroom Rhoads unit smelled of chocolate chip cookies - just like when Rhoads was a little girl - and five still warm from the oven were saved on a plate for Santa.
Large plastic candy canes lined the front walkway, and a plush Santa head hung on the front door. Glittering red garland was wrapped around the railing of the porch.
Rhoads also got a good deal on a Christmas tree at a place not far from her former motel home. This Christmas won't go by so quickly.
"I still can't believe it," Rhoads said. "I'm waiting to wake up from the dream."
The Chester County Housing Authority and Philadelphia-based Pennrose, a development-management company, are joint owners of the Fairview Village development. It cost $10.8 million to build, has units with one to four bedrooms, and is about half a mile from downtown Phoenixville. The owners declined to say what the units rented for, but Rhoads said she pays about $250 in utilities each month.
Rhoads has several health problems, including fibromyalgia and degenerative disk disease, and is applying for disability. She said she also gets financial help from the state and other agencies to pay her rent.
Rhoads and her three children - JoJo, 11-year-old Anastacia, and 9-year-old Cassidy - have moved around a lot in the last few years. They have stayed with family, at the motel, in other apartments and for a time at a couple of domestic violence shelters.
Rhoads said the children's father was controlling and abusive toward her and the kids, and she said he broke her ankle and scarred her face.
Now, the children have their own rooms. There is also room for three red stockings taped to the wall of the living room, each with a child's name written in glitter. A paper-plate wreath JoJo made at school is taped on the opposite wall.
"It's big," Anastacia said of their new home.
Rhoads said she had initially heard negative things about the development but was pleasantly surprised when she visited. The things she had heard, it turned out, were about the old development that was located where her new home is now.
A 25-unit housing development that Dale Gravett, executive director of the Chester County Housing Authority, described as "dilapidated," was demolished in the fall to make way for the new homes.
Residents in the new development had to pass a "rigorous" application process, Gravett said. And during construction, the Housing Authority helped relocate the families from the old development. They had the option of moving into the new units.
New tenants Janelle Hill, 21, and her fiancé, Michael Doss, 22, don't have a Christmas tree this year.
"It's slightly discouraging because I'm used to Christmas at my mom's house," which is lit up with decorations, Hill said.
But the couple, who have been together for three years and were homeless for some of that time, said they are thankful for what they have.
"It's actually a dream come true," Hill said. "Knowing we were going to have our first Christmas in our new home was amazing."
Hill, Doss, and their two children, 2-year-old Ma'kayla and 4-month-old Makenzi, moved from Chester into their new two-bedroom home in early November. Both adults are looking for steady jobs.
"It's awesome to have a sense of stability," Doss said. "We've got nowhere to go but up."
Rhoads said she is blessed to have made it to Fairview Village.
"It's been rough, but we're here now," she said. "It's like that one step you need to keep you going."