50 Years, 50,000 Homes

Building Forward: Self-Help For All

rvsummer15-coverThis story appears in the 2015 Summer Edition of Rural Voices

by Russell Huxtable

Let’s build on fifty years of history and expand this life changing program!

Great things come in small packages. In 2014, funding for USDA’s Self-Help Program made up .000857 percent of the national budget. That’s it – about $30 million a year in a program that gets homes built but also does so much more. That number may seem an insignificant part of the whole, but to the 50,000 families and all the organizations that have adopted the Self-Help Program, it is and will be the reflection of America’s core values and all that is right, just, and caring about our country.

What better model to help those achieve the American dream than the Self-Help Program? This program allows rural nonprofit housing organizations to provide families with tools to succeed figuratively and literally. The families’ goal of homeownership is our mission. Self-help organizations provide financial literacy training, credit counseling, budgeting workshops, homeownership counseling, loan packaging, preconstruction training, construction supervision, financial technical assistance, and post occupancy training. The self-help organizations aren’t done just there. Our partnership with our families outlives the mere construction of the homes. These organizations never turn their back on their families. The mission continues, for the families’ success is our success.

We do not reduce costs through cutting quality, we reduce costs through the families’ sweat equity.

I’m a biased author. The organization I work for operates a self-help program. There are very few alternatives in the communities we serve to reach very low- and low-income families. Subsidies to lower the cost of building are few and far between. Self-help is the main way in which we are able to make homeownership affordable to very low- and low-income families. We do not reduce costs through cutting quality, we reduce costs through the families’ sweat equity.

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Our families include the teachers in our schools, the certified nursing assistants (CNAs), the salespeople in our stores, the bus drivers, and the agricultural workers. They are our friends and neighbors. This program is a hand up, not a hand out. While I personally haven’t built in self-help, I know it would be the hardest thing I could possibly do.

Yet 50,000 families, friends and neighbors have already done what I know to be tremendously difficult because they wanted to put themselves and their families in a better position. They wanted to become an integral part of the community. They wanted self-sufficiency. They do it for their kids. They wanted a home. Thousands of families have raised their hand and have said ‘yes’, I would like to partner and build my own home, while empowering myself and my community. We, the community, benefit from them.

We stand on the shoulders of the giants who created a wonderful program and nurtured it from its infancy. We’re not hitting a mid-life crisis; we know what self-help housing is and how it helps our communities. It’s a proven program. It is now our turn to continue to educate and advocate on behalf of the best homeownership program in America, the Self-Help Housing Program. We must continue to provide and support this program fully to our rural communities. We must continue to showcase their success, one family at a time if necessary (or 50,000 of them as the case may be).

The Self-Help Housing Program is a best practice. Looking forward we realize self-help should be a model for other areas in America. It’s a great public-private partnership. In the past we have always let the results of the program speak for itself. Now, it’s time to take the results (over 50,000 homes!) and replicate it in suburban and urban areas. I believe it is time for the Self-Help Housing Program and all these wonderful rural housing practitioners to bring this program to new areas and begin a renaissance. We need to build our coalition. Fifty years from now, we can reflect upon our vision that brought self-help forward as not only the best rural homeownership program, but the best homeownership program available in all America.

We will reflect back upon 100 years of self-help and the many families that have benefitted from this program and how we were able to steward this program for the next generation with pride.

We’ve built an American dream based on many things, and a primary goal of that dream is owning your own home. Over 50,000 families have built their dream through this program. Rather than cutting the budget appropriation, let’s double it…..no, let’s triple it in self-help and grow. Let’s keep this promise of making the American dream a reality to the thousands who still desire, want, and need a place to call home. Let’s expand the program beyond the confines of rural America; for this program is more than just its rural roots, it’s about creating them.

Russell Huxtable is President of the National Rural Self-Help Housing Association. He is also the Vice-President at Milford Housing Development Corporation (MHDC) a value-driven, nonprofit, affordable housing developer, providing services throughout Delaware. MHDC’s mission is to provide decent, safe, affordable housing solutions to people of modest means.