Helping Build Homes and Communities Across Rural America.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Building homes together in America’s “most rural state”

As part of National Homeownership Month, we’ll be highlighting stories from across our network participating in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP). HAC provides loan funds to self-help housing providers to help low- and moderate-income families achieve their dreams of homeownership. The homebuyer family must contribute a significant amount of sweat-equity towards the construction of the dwelling. Loan funds are awarded through a competitive application process. If the organization meets certain requirements, up to 90% of the SHOP loan may be forgiven. The forgivable portion may become a grant for the group to establish its own revolving loan fund for future site acquisition and development of self-help housing or to provide direct subsidies to participating homebuyer families.

Community Concepts staff and supporters celebrate the completion of news self-help units in 2019

Community Concepts staff and supporters celebrate the completion of news self-help units in 2019

Following the 2010 Census, Maine was dubbed “the most rural state” with 61.3% of its residents living in rural communities. Homeownership is common among Mainers, with 71.5% of all units being owner-occupied. Though poverty rates in Maine are lower than the national average (13.5% vs. 15.1%), the state has higher rates of residents receiving income through Social Security, Supplemental Social Security, and Public Assistance making it challenging for many to qualify for a mortgage.

Community Concepts, Inc., based in Lewiston, Maine, got its start in 1965 as part of federal legislation that created a network of Community Action Agencies. Community Concept’s programming focuses on the “whole family”, addressing the needs of parents and their children with programs like Head Start, fuel assistance, weatherization programs, and self-help homeownership. In 1991, HAC provided a planning grant to Community Concepts to help initiate the self-help homeownership program at the organization. “Since that first grant, we’ve completed 350 self-help home ownership opportunity, including new construction and a purchase/repair program we added 10 years ago,” shared Sandy Albert, Director of Housing Improvement Services.

The organization sees a lot of overlap in the clients it serves and that is intentional. “We have family development coaches that are working with families,” says Albert. If a family of renters comes to the agency looking for help with fuel assistance the coach will also ask if they’re interested in becoming a homeowner. The coach will then refer the family to other programs in the organization that can help them pursue homeownership or, if necessary, help build their credit.

One of those families, the Hoyts, achieved their dream in May 2012. Working together with five other families, the Hoyts learned valuable construction skills as they worked on their home. Through their sweat-equity, each family saved as much as $20,000 on the cost of their home. In a letter shared by Community Concepts, Eric Hoyt wrote “This is not a house that you’re building it’s a home, and it’s a heartfelt build. With a lot of meaning that goes into it. There is a lot of hours and tears and fears but through them all when you walk through the door and you say look at what we have. When you look at what you and your team has accomplished it makes it that much more a home.”

Albert credits the program’s success and impact to Community Concept’s partnership with HAC. “Without the funding through SHOP, many of our buyers would not qualify even with the sweat-equity,” said Albert “those families wouldn’t be where they are today.”

Help Rural America Thrive on Giving Tuesday

Good things are happening in rural America. Be a part of it.

Too often, the prevailing narrative about rural America is that it is failing compared to its urban and suburban counterparts. While rural America is certainly facing its share of struggles, there are so many bright spots and amazing things taking place in small towns and communities across the country. We know because we see it every day.

In October, HAC kicked off the Citizens Institute on Rural DesignTM (CIRD) with the CIRD Learning Cohort Summit in the towns of Thomas, Davis, and Elkins in rural West Virginia. The Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design™ is a National Endowment for the Arts leadership initiative in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council, along with buildingcommunityWORKSHOP. Participants representing 23 rural communities from across the country convened to learn the fundamentals of rural design and how it can help solve some of their community’s most challenging problems.

Giving Tuesday 2019

Over the next year, these 23 communities will receive access to the resources they need to convert their own good ideas into reality. Here a few examples of the challenges these communities will be tackling:

  • One of the pressing issues still facing the residents of Iola, Kansas is the lack of quality, affordable housing. Thrive Allen County and the City of Iola will use the design challenge to develop an affordable housing master plan for a neighborhood on the north side of town.
  • The town of Entiat, Washington is exploring how it can reinvent itself as a destination for recreation, agritourism, small business development, and residential development.
  • The Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society in Athens, Ohio plans to rehabilitate the Mt. Zion Baptist Church into a multi-use space devoted to the contributions of African Americans in Southeast Ohio – honoring its founding in 1905 by a community of free-born and formerly enslaved people of color.

2020 holds many possibilities for HAC and the communities we partner with, like Iola, Entiat, and Athens. This #GivingTuesday, your donation to HAC will have more impact as every dollar raised will meet HAC’s match for the CIRD program. And every donation made to HAC on Facebook on #GivingTuesday will be matched by Facebook. You can be a part of changing the story in rural America.

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Supporters

HAC would like to recognize and thank our generous supporters.

Supporters

The Atlantic Philanthropies
Bank of America
BBVA Compass Bank
Capital One Bank
Council of Federal Home Loan Banks
Episcopal Diocese of Iowa
The Episcopal Church
F.B. Heron Foundation
Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines
Ford Foundation
The Hearst Foundation
The Home Depot Foundation
Home Missioners of America
Lenin Juarez
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
JP Morgan Chase
Morgan Stanley
Navajo Housing Authority
NeighborWorks™ America
Seton Enablement Fund
Sisters of Charity, Blessed Virgin Mary
Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia
Sisters of the Holy Cross
Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Society of Mary
U.S. Department of Agriculture— Rural Development – Business and Cooperative Programs
U.S. Department of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
U.S. Department of the Treasury— Community Development Financial Institutions Fund
Wells Fargo Housing Foundation

Partners

Gideon Anders
Joseph and Tamara Belden
Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing Corporation
Congregation of the Humility of Mary
Council for Affordable and Rural Housing
Habitat for Humanity
Norman Hurwitz
Moises and Teresa Loza
Maria Luisa Mercado
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Next Step
PathStone Corporation
William and Gloria Powers
Reno & Cavanaugh, PLLC
Rural Community Assistance Corporation
Rural Community Assistance Partnership
Byron and Lee Stookey
Leslie R. Strauss
Harold and Marilyn Wilson