Revisiting Rural: The Subdivision that Built a Community

This is the first story in Revisiting Rural, a series which explores success stories from the Housing Assistance Council’s 50 years of helping build rural communities.

Over 600 billion gallons of water flow through the Rio Grande every year. In Alamosa, Colorado, however, the river is narrow enough to skip rocks across. Alamosa lies in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley just south of the river’s headwaters. Almost 10,000 people call Alamosa home.

Since 1971, Community Resources and Housing Development Corporation (CRHDC) has served the housing needs of Alamosa and the entire San Luis Valley. But, in 1997, CRHDC had a problem: they ran out of land.

Like many rural affordable housing organizations, CRHDC operated a self-help housing program with financing from the Housing Assistance Council (HAC). Under the self-help model, new homeowners help build their homes. This “sweat equity” takes the place of a traditional cash down-payment, keeping costs low and making the home more affordable. At first, HAC helped CRHDC fund scattered-site development, forming a patchwork of affordable homes across Alamosa. But, by the late 1990s, the limited supply of available lots in city limits had been exhausted. This left CRHDC with only one viable option: building a subdivision in a previously undeveloped side of town.

A family works on their self-help home in El Milagro. Courtesy of CRHDC.

A family works on their self-help home in El Milagro. Courtesy of CRHDC.

CRHDC had never built a subdivision before, but we were eager to help them learn to solve the challenges this new type of development would pose. HAC regularly provides both loans and technical assistance to support self-help housing construction across rural America. Plus, many of our self-help loans are up to 90% forgivable if the project’s production goals are met. In 1998, we lent $300,000 to fund the subdivision’s construction—the plan called for forty homes, roads to connect them, and utilities to keep them livable. With our lending, CRHDC’s vision, and homebuyers’ hard work, a subdivision known as El Milagro was born.

Over the next four years, an empty parcel of land was built into a neighborhood. To this day Janet Lucero, CRHDC’s Director of Single-Family Development, runs into the El Milagro families all around Alamosa. They’re proud of the homes they built—that’s why Janet still gets invited to see their landscaping, remodeling, and add-ons.

HAC takes pride in helping community organizations grow their capacity to serve their neighbors. HAC partnered with CRHDC to build the capacity of their farm labor housing program while it was still in its early stages. Today, CRHDC provides similar technical assistance to other housing organizations’ farm labor programs.

El Milagro was a turning point for CRHDC. When asked where his organization would be if it weren’t for El Milagro, CRHDC’s Executive Director Arturo Alvarado said that “it’s hard to imagine CRHDC today if it weren’t for that subdivision.” The lessons learned, the results realized, and the new form of development renewed CRHDC’s capacity for impact.

HAC’s loan and the subdivision it helped build have touched far more lives than those of the 40 families who built their homes. Alamosa has grown considerably over the last two decades, with new development bringing more opportunity to the town’s residents. The El Milagro neighborhood has grown into a community. Developing affordable homes throughout Alamosa has helped the entire town. “The side of town we build on is the side that’s growing,” noted Curtis Schneider, Director of Accounting and Finance for CRHDC.    

Two completed self-help homes in El Milagro.

Two completed self-help homes in El Milagro. Courtesy of CRHDC.

In addition to economic opportunity, El Milagro has brought quality of life improvements to Alamosa. As Alvarado noted, they “build more than homes.” CRHDC builds communities where children can play, where families can grow, and where life can be lived. Over the last few years, the City of Alamosa has even invested in two new parks near CRHDC-built communities.  

HAC is proud to have been a part of El Milagro’s development. As HAC’s Director of Lending Eileen Neely laid out, “Investing in affordable homes doesn’t just help the families who live in them. It also builds the community and the capacity of groups like CRHDC. They’re a great example of the principle we see with our partners across rural America.” 

A nearly-completed lease-to-own home built by CRHDC in Alamosa.

A nearly-completed lease-to-own home built by CRHDC in Alamosa. Courtesy of CRHDC.

HAC’s and CRHDC’s work is as necessary as ever. Over the last decade, Alamosa has grown considerably, but new home construction hasn’t kept pace. A recent housing needs assessment found that Alamosa needs over 540 new affordable homes to meet current demand. This lack of affordable homes has become so drastic that CRHDC regularly works with families who’ve qualified for mortgages as high as $250,000 but who cannot find any homes for sale at that price. At the same time, rising costs for building materials have pushed CRHDC’s construction prices up 20% in the last two years alone. Amazingly, over the last decade, one in ten new homes built in the San Luis Valley were built by CRHDC.   

Today, CRHDC is still going strong. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, “we never stopped building,” Alvarado explained. Across Alamosa and the entire San Luis Valley, HAC’s and CRHDC’s impact is evident. It’s felt when self-help families thank CRHDC staff at title companies, construction suppliers, diners, and hotels. It’s there every winter when affordable housing construction continues in the snow long after others have stopped for the season. Building homes is “more than just four walls. It touches every aspect of a community,” Alvarado noted. At HAC, we believe that building affordable homes strengthens entire communities. El Milagro is proof of this principle in action. 

 

HAC to Expand Work with Community Facilities

For fifty years, the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) has helped build homes and communities across rural America. Now, we’re working to expand our footprint by working with more communities to develop and rehabilitate community facilities.

Community facilities—such as parks, libraries, hospitals, and childcare centers—provide public services for everyone, making neighborhoods a better place to call home. They not only cultivate a feeling of belonging; they also provide tangible benefits for residents. As HAC’s Director of Training and Technical Assistance, Shonterria Charleston, puts it, “building rural communities is about more than houses. It’s about building the places where people learn, where they grow, and where they get their healthcare.”

Thanks to two grants from the US Department of Agriculture, HAC will work with small towns, including those affecting by natural disasters, to build and rehab much-needed community facilities. In fact, HAC is hiring a Community Facilities Housing Specialist to help us do this work by providing technical assistance to rural organizations. You can learn more about the position here.

HAC’s 2020 Annual Report

HAC would like to present its Annual Report for the year 2020.

A Message from HAC President and CEO, David Lipsetz

2020 was a year like none other. In hundreds of rural places, like Bastrop, Louisiana and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the Housing Assistance Council helped local partners address housing challenges caused by COVID-19, and more so by living in a system that lets the place you live and the color of your skin determine how much you can access the freedom and wealth this great country has to offer.

This was not the 2020 we wanted, but it was a year in which HAC gave its all to address the challenges before us.

The year started with HAC on a roll. We had just overhauled our loan fund, modernized our financial management system, and we moved all of our computing to the cloud.

We were hiring new HACsters, growing and establishing a new division for Policy, nearly doubling our grant funding for training and technical assistance, and talking to a dozen investors about investing in HAC to increase the size and reach of our lending for families that need an affordable home.

And then it was March.

Businesses and schools were shutting down as COVID arrived. Supply chains for goods and services were breaking down. The impact of the pandemic was climbing fast.

At first, rural places seemed less at risk. Then the rates of infection in rural places took off. It wasn’t long before people in small towns were getting sick at rates above the rest of the country.

In response, HAC moved its operations entirely online. We shifted all of our technical assistance for rural organizations to COVID response and business continuity. We gathered up and sent out information that small towns needed to respond in the face of the pandemic.

We offered every group that was building affordable housing with a loan from HAC an opportunity to defer mortgage payments until conditions improved.

Because good rural data is always hard to find, we provided detailed maps and reports to federal official—and the press—on an almost daily basis. We were tracking the devastating impact of the pandemic as it raced across small towns in this country. It was a story we had to tell in real time if we expect the response and recovery to include all Americans.

And then, of course, came May.

Civil unrest was everywhere in 2020. Protestors taking to the streets to call out police violence and systemic racism. HAC has this wonderful 50-year record of working to dismantle racist housing policy. Though further from the headlines, there were protests in Whitefish, Cairo, Selma, Harlan, Taylorville, and countless other small towns that know racism and the injustice it brings MUST be rooted out of every corner of the country.

Throughout all that 2020 had in store for us, we saw resilience. We saw rural groups overcome broadband deserts to deliver homebuyer education via Zoom, and construction crews splitting into shifts staying socially distanced while keeping projects on schedule. In 2020, HAC originated nearly $9 million in mortgages to local groups that were, against all odds, finding ways to keep building affordable homes for families in need.

In this past year of extraordinary hardship, I am really proud of the job HAC’s done. We didn’t struggle to keep up—we rose to the occasion. We expanded our impact. We deepened our commitment to equitable and just outcomes. We maintained our momentum, strengthened our financial position, expanded our staff, and kept our programs on an upward trajectory. We are redoubling our partnerships with the rural communities where we live, work, and invest our capital. I am proud of it. I am inspired by all of the work my colleagues at HAC and partners in small towns around the country have done this year. And, of course, we couldn’t build homes and community in rural America without the generosity of our supporters. Thank you for your commitment to rural communities and to people in need.

So, here we are celebrating HAC’s 50th anniversary in the year to come, 2021. And while it may take all of us another 50 years working together to make sure EVERY American in EVERY small town has a safe, stable, and affordable place to call home, I think 2020, with all its ups and downs, has brought us another step closer to that goal.

So, thanks for your partnership, thanks for your support for the Housing Assistance Council this year. Let’s keep at it in the year to come.

How HAC’s Loan Application Packaging Training Supports Homeownership

HAC and rural CDFIs receive “massive” $353 million investment

The US Treasury announced it is investing $1.25 billion of COVID-19 relief funds in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). We are excited to announce that the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) has received the maximum award: $1,826,265.

HAC will invest our $1.8 million award through our Loan Fund to support affordable housing organizations across rural America. As Eileen Neely, director of HAC’s Loan Fund explains, “$1.8 million means we can invest in more rural communities and help more low-income Americans get housed.”

Overall, the US Treasury is awarding $353 million to rural CDFIs. “This massive investment in rural CDFIs will help unlock the potential of rural communities,” said David Lipsetz, President & CEO of the Housing Assistance Council. “We are thrilled for the opportunity to expand our work for disinvested rural communities.”

Everyone deserves a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home. This award strengthens HAC’s work to make that vision a reality for rural America.

In memory of Gordone Cavanaugh

HAC Honors the Memory of Gordon Cavanaugh

Last week, the affordable housing community lost a luminary. Gordon Cavanaugh was an inspiring leader and a fierce advocate, committed to serving the poorest of the poor. Throughout his long career in affordable housing, he served as Philadelphia’s housing director, head of the Farmers Home Administration, chairman of Global Communities (formerly CHFInternational) and a Partner at the leading affordable housing law firm Reno & Cavanaugh. Here at the Housing Assistance Council, we will also remember him as our first Executive Director.

Gordon came to HAC in 1971, quickly assembling a diverse and experienced staff of housing experts and advocates. He created our Southwest and Southeast regional offices, marshalled federal investment in rural housing, and laid the foundation for programs that continue to build homes and community in rural America today.

HAC stands on the shoulders of giants —Gordon’s commitment to serving the poorest of the poor still lies at the heart of our work. Every loan we close, every wall we raise, and every family we help house is a part of his legacy.

The entire HAC family sends our sincere condolences to Joan—Gordon’s wife of 61 years—and their children and grandchildren.

In memory of Gordone Cavanaugh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northwest Regional Housing Authority Demonstrates Impact of Self-Help Housing

March 26, 2021 – Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP). In the last quarter century, SHOP has helped tens of thousands of families achieve the dream of homeownership. The SHOP program funds the construction of self-help housing nationwide. Under the self-help model, families help build their home to earn “sweat equity” instead of making a traditional cash down-payment. This makes the new home more affordable and makes homeownership accessible to low- and very low-income households typically left out of the for-sale housing market.

Over the last 25 years, the Housing Assistance Council has received and invested over $120 million through SHOP to build 9,896 self-help homes. We lend this money to local organizations that work with families to build self-help homes across rural America. If the organization meets its targets, our loans are up to 90% forgivable, which allows the organization to provide additional homebuyer subsidies or create additional self-help units. As the only national SHOP grantee with a specific focus on rural homes, we’re proud of the difference our SHOP investments make in rural America. So, to celebrate SHOP’s 25th anniversary, we wanted to highlight the impact of one of our SHOP grantees: Northwest Regional Housing Authority (NWRHA) in Harrison, Arkansas, who we’ve partnered with since 2006.

Operating in 12 counties in northwest Arkansas, NWRHA’s self-help program has helped over 150 families in the pursuit of homeownership. Each family contributes an average of 650 hours of labor building their home. This not only keeps costs down, it provides participants with instant equity in their home and the skills to maintain it. One of the biggest challenges NWRHA faces is finding affordable, buildable lots. With rapidly rising property values, the price of a lot suitable for self-help construction in northwest Arkansas has soared to over $20,000. Luckily, our loans provide NWRHA with the capital to purchase land sooner, which keeps prices down.

To understand the impact of NWRHA’s self-help program, you could take a drive across rural Arkansas to see the dozens of homes self-help families have built. Or, you could ask Ana Castro-Beard, NWRHA’s Self-Help Specialist. She tells the story of a single father and his kids, who did not have stable housing until they came to NWRHA. After they moved into the home they built, Ana received a postcard from the family: it was a picture of their first Christmas in their new home.

Children playing in their new home

Photo courtesy of NWRHA.

Homes are more than just shelter from the elements. They’re where kids are raised, holidays are celebrated, and dinners are shared. They’re the backbone of financial stability and a gateway to economic opportunity.

In his speech before the House of Representatives supporting the bill that funded SHOP, former New York Congressman Rick Lazio promised that the new program would “boost homeownership levels…where we need it desperately.” Twenty-five years later, that dream is a reality. Thanks to the dedicated service of organizations like Northwest Regional Housing Authority, thousands of families—urban and rural—now have a safe, stable place to call home. Their home.

Our Work

HAC Awarded Nearly $1.3 Million in SHOP Funding

Last week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it has awarded the Housing Assistance Council almost $1.3 million under its Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP). Under the self-help model, homebuyers contribute hundreds of hours of labor as “sweat equity” instead of a down payment, making their new home more affordable.

HAC will lend this $1.3 million to organizations around the country building affordable self-help homes in rural communities. In fact, our lending will help finance the land purchase and infrastructure improvements necessary to build at least 69 self-help homes for low-income families.

If the borrowers meet their production goals, up to 90% of the loan can be forgiven.  This forgiveness frees up more funding for the organization to make the homes even more affordable, establish a revolving loan fund, or fund future self-help housing development. We are thankful for the opportunity to continue investing in the organizations making more affordable housing for rural America.

HAC is Hiring a Community Facilities Housing Specialist

The Community Facilities Housing Specialist helps to enhance the lives of rural residents by increasing access to community facilities (e.g., parks, community centers, public libraries, childcare centers, hospitals, clinic, museums or historic site or other public spaces). The Specialist identifies and engages community stakeholders and provides direct technical assistance to rural organizations that are developing facilities. This includes helping them identify, utilize, and apply for financial resources. such as USDA Community Facilities grants and loans. This a two-year position.

Read the position description and application instructions

White Mountain Apache Housing Authority Serves its Veterans

The White Mountain Apache Housing Authority (WMAHA) helps the members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe to overcome their individual housing needs. Of these, almost 500 are U.S. military veterans. Working in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation located in eastern central Arizona, WMAHA serves the 16,000 enrolled members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and strives to ensure that every tribal member has safe housing they can afford. The Housing Assistance Council (HAC) is proud to be a partner of WMAHA and their amazing work. In 2018, we awarded a $30,000 grant through The Home Depot Foundation‘s Veteran Housing Grants Program to WMAHA to help support their veterans. In celebration of Veterans Day and Native American Heritage Month, we’d like to highlight just a few of the many ways the White Mountain Apache Housing Authority serves the veterans of the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Before rehab of a veteran’s home completed by WMAHA in 2018 

Before rehab of a veteran’s home completed by WMAHA in 2018

After rehab of a veteran’s home completed by WMAHA in 2018 

After rehab of a veteran’s home completed by WMAHA in 2018

Before and after of a rehab of a veteran’s home completed by WMAHA in 2018 

 

As many veterans know, service doesn’t end when you’re discharged. It’s a value that is carried for a lifetime. For WMAHA, service is key to the mission. The Veteran Home Rehabilitation Program serves those who have served our country. Many of the low-income Apache veterans the Housing Authority assists are in desperate need of multiple, expensive repairs to make sure their homes are safe, accessible, and livable. But without the ability to make these repairs themselves, many veterans need help.

Over the last eight years, the White Mountain Apache Housing Authority has rehabilitated (or in one case built!) 19 homes for their veterans, each of which required multiple major repairs for health, safety, and accessibility. All of this was performed at no cost to the veteran or their family. Last year WMAHA was able to set a record with 5 rehabilitations.

Making sure their veterans have safe and healthy homes is a point of pride for WMAHA and for the entire White Mountain Apache community. After all, WMAHA doesn’t work alone: each rehabilitation is made possible by scores of volunteers. As the team from WMAHA explains, “the number of volunteers who come and help with demolition and construction cleanup during the projects” is a testament to the rehabilitation program’s “impact on the community.” From the Housing Authority to everyday members, including community partners, the White Mountain Apache Tribe takes care of its veterans. By taking care of those who took care of us, WMAHA is serving both its community and the broader community of veterans nationwide.

The COVID pandemic has hit many Native communities particularly hard, and tragically, the White Mountain Apache are no exception. During the pandemic, unemployment, which usually runs 80% according to WMAHA, has far surpassed that amount, and food insecurity is “at a critical level.” Many of the low-income veterans WMAHA assists don’t have a way to pick up food from the local food bank, so the Housing Authority is starting to deliver the food boxes itself. Not content to just help house their veterans, WMAHA is committed to improving their quality of life.

Caring for veterans extends outside the home, too. For WMAHA, ensuring their veterans have access to the Veterans Affairs benefits they deserve is a critical mission. With 1.67 million acres, the Fort Apache Indian Reservation is large and rural. This creates challenges for many of the Tribe’s low-income veterans. Many of the nearest VA hospitals are hundreds of miles away, which makes even getting to routine appointments incredibly difficult. This distance makes it so challenging to receive disability ratings, see specialists, and make necessary appointments that, according to Barb Connerley, a consultant who works with WMAHA, “many of the veterans…do not know what VA benefits are available to them.”

This veteran’s home was in such disrepair the team from WMAHA decided to tear it down and start from scratch.

This veteran’s home was in such disrepair the team from WMAHA decided to tear it down and start from scratch.

This veteran’s home was in such disrepair the team from WMAHA decided to tear it down and start from scratch.

This veteran’s home was in such disrepair the team from WMAHA decided to tear it down and start from scratch.

This veteran’s home was in such disrepair the team from WMAHA decided to tear it down and start from scratch.

The White Mountain Apache Housing Authority has created a solution to help connect their veterans to the VA medical care they earned through their service. Since 2017, the White Mountain Apache Tribe Department of Transportation has operated Fort Apache Connection Transit (FACT), a 2-route bus system serving 12 stops across the Reservation. While this system doesn’t provide access to the nearest VA hospitals, the Housing Authority recently began repurposing one of their buses to transport veterans to their VA appointments. Multiple times a month, WMAHA will be providing veterans with a bus ride to their appointments and back home. They even take the time to help the veterans complete their paperwork to file for VA benefits.

For the trip, WMAHA provides their veterans with water, snacks, masks, and COVID safety information. They hope that this program can also serve as a teaching event, helping their veterans learn more about COVID safety as well as how to access their VA benefits. The program’s strength is its ingenuity—bringing together transit, healthcare, and informational services—in solving a critical problem for the Tribe’s veterans. Thanks to the White Mountain Apache Housing Authority, veterans living on reservation now have access to the critical VA healthcare they’ve earned through their service.

Many veterans return from their service to find it difficult to access the resources of their communities, including housing. Tragically, Native communities are overrepresented among persistent poverty counties, making these resources even harder to access. The Housing Assistance Council is committed to helping build community resources for housing where they’re needed most. Partners like WMAHA help us give back to our veterans and uplift Native communities. As Barb Connerley puts it, the Tribe’s veterans “have a proud tradition of military service and sacrifice.” The work of the White Mountain Apache Housing Authority pays respect to that service and sacrifice through service, care, and ingenuity of its own.