The San Francisco Chronicle (California)
By: Carolyn Said
June 16, 2011
Adjusting his hard hat, Clinton Gandy bounded up the steps of a partially built house near downtown Sebastopol.
"This is my actual home," he said proudly. "It was just a dirt lot covered with hay six months ago. There are lots of cool things like 10-foot ceilings and this giant 4-by-8 window."
After getting clean from drug addiction, Gandy and his girlfriend, Angie DeCarly, had been struggling to find a suitable place to raise their two children.
A little-known U.S. Department of Agriculture program is letting them contribute sweat equity instead of cash to become homeowners, working shoulder to shoulder with their future neighbors. But now the program is on the budget chopping block, faced with severe cutbacks or even extinction after 40 years in existence.
Several hundred low-income families a year build their own homes through the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, which targets rural areas with its barn-raising-style approach to home ownership.
556 families housed
In the Bay Area, Burbank Housing Development Corp. of Santa Rosa has shepherded construction of 22 "self-help" developments housing 556 families, mainly in Sonoma County, over the past 27 years.
Burbank and similar nonprofits provide counseling, construction supervision and loan packaging to the low-income families who build the homes. The group is still seeking three more homeowner-builders for Sebastopol.
"This program has been tremendously successful in getting people into homes and having them stay in those homes," said John Lowry, executive director of Burbank Housing. "It's very short-sighted to eliminate it."
Families can sell their homes under a limited-equity model that keeps them affordable, but most choose to stay put.
"What's remarkable is the stability of the self-help owner," said Peter Carey, CEO of Self Help Enterprises in Visalia Tulare County. "Ten years later, at least 70 percent are still in those homes."
Default rates are even lower. Of about 10,000 self-help homes in California, only 57 were foreclosed upon last year, Carey said. That's a rate of about 0.57 percent. By contrast, 2 percent of all homes in California were repossessed as foreclosures last year, according to DataQuick Information Services.
Self-help homeowners work in teams of eight to 12 families to build the houses together, working 30 hours a week for about a year.
They must do 65 percent of the work on their homes, and can recruit friends and family to contribute time. Professionals handle tasks such as stucco, plumbing and wiring.
On a recent Saturday, the Sebastopol development called Hollyhock Self-Help Homes, where Gandy and DeCarly will live, swarmed with more than a dozen future residents, men and women wearing tool belts and hard hats.
Eleven of the planned 34 homes are already standing. Electric tools whirred and the air smelled of fresh sawdust.
"It's a stressful but also transformative experience people go through," Lowry said. "They aren't just building their homes, they are also building a community."
Gandy agreed. "When you work with your neighbors, you really get to know them," he said.
The USDA 2012 proposed budget would virtually eliminate the program's funding, cutting all the money for the agencies that oversee development and slashing most funds for affordable mortgages for the builder-families.
In a written statement, the USDA said: "The President's budget supports the call for responsible economies by accepting difficult choices. We are realigning and retargeting our efforts, and saving money for the taxpayers, while still supporting rural residents and communities in building a better future." Overall, the budget will "provide more assistance for single family housing in rural areas than has ever been provided," it said.
But housing advocates are not reassured.
"If the budget goes through, 100 organizations nationwide that currently receive funding to help families build their own homes will go out of business and the 50,000 families across the nation who are on a waiting list to participate in self-help housing will be left without the best option they have to gain homeownership," said Bob Rapoza, executive secretary of the National Rural Housing Coalition.
Because of its strong emphasis on people helping themselves, the program enjoys bipartisan political support. A bill to restore some funding is being debated in the House of Representatives this week.
"If we end up with that solution, we will face reductions and shortfalls to be sure, but at least we will have a program," Rapoza said.
Gandy works two jobs totaling about 65 hours a week in addition to the yearlong commitment of 30 hours a week at Hollyhock.
"You do what you got to do to provide for your family, and it's only for a little bit," he said. "I never ever thought it was possible for us to own a house. We wouldn't have been able to save a down payment in a million years."
"I never thought it was possible for us to own a house. We wouldn't have been able to save a down payment in a million years."