An Emerging Self-Help Leader

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

Discusses personal growth and sustaining the momentum through Self-Help Housing

Affordable housing, specifically self-help housing, is very dear to my heart. This program, or one like it, could have made a difference for my family when I was a young girl. My father’s family is from the Native Village of Port Heiden, a traditional Alutiiq community on the Aleutian Peninsula. When I was born, my first home was a 500 square foot cabin on my paternal grandparents’ homestead in Ninilchik, not far from where I live and work today. While pregnant with my brother, my mom cared for me on her own while my father was away many weeks at a time commercial fishing. We lived a subsistence life, eating fish and game and foraging off the land;
we made do with very little and had no access to transportation. Mom hauled all of the water we used to cook and clean and collected the coal used to heat the cabin from the beach. The cabin had no indoor plumbing or electricity.

My parents divorced when I was young. My mom struggled during this time, sacrificing her most basic needs to keep my brother and me fed and clothed with a roof over our heads. She worked several minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet, but she never complained and we never felt poor. As I grew up, I witnessed my mom’s determination while she worked her way up and out of poverty as a single mother. I learned a great deal from her about perseverance and making do with what you have.

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After graduating high school, my first job was a receptionist at a local bank. After two years, I was promoted to a mortgage loan closer. I was with the bank for 15 years. After a difficult divorce, I found myself alone, with no home, no source of income, and two young sons to support. I took a minimum-wage position that brought in just enough to pay the rent and provide basic necessities for my children. I knew there should be better opportunities for someone with my banking and lending background, but jobs in the field were scarce in my rural community, compounded by the 2008 mortgage lending crisis. I was awarded a scholarship through my Alaska Native corporation of Cook Inlet Region, Inc. and put myself through college while working full time and supporting my children. I received my Associates degree in General Business in 2009 and graduated at the top of my class – the first college graduate on either side of my family.

In October of 2009, I applied for a homeownership program coordinator position at Rural Alaska Community Action Corporation (RurAL CAP) in their Self-Help Housing Program. It was exactly the type of position I was looking for. I could apply my mortgage lending experience and education to help make a difference in my community. It was my first job interview in over a decade. Mustering my confidence, I presented my credentials and experience and discussed my passion for helping people in my community. Because of my mortgage lending background, communication skills, compassion and desire to help others, and business education, RurAL CAP felt that I was the best fit for the position and decided to give me a chance.

I feel the self-help housing model is the perfect example of how a family with limited income can achieve homeownership. What I find so compelling about the program is that families are not simply given their home like it’s some kind of an entitlement, which is sometimes the case in rural Alaska. They have to work hard for it. Because of that, the sense of accomplishment they have when they move in is undeniable. They know how to maintain their home. They can afford their home. They have learned new life skills and, most importantly, they have pride in what they have accomplished. This transcends into every other facet of their lives. Self-help housing is not easy, but that is what sets it apart from all other programs.

Self-help is also very rewarding on a personal level. I am making a real difference in my families’ lives. I see defeated people every day as they begin the application process. I see people who have been beaten down and had everything taken from them. It is such a fulfilling experience for me to tell them ‘yes’, when so many times they have heard ‘no’. That simple word, ‘yes’, changes them and that sense of accomplishment is empowering. Their confidence grows when they start to take the steps that make a real change in their lives. I see them looking people in the eye and holding their heads high. I see them taking the chance and applying for that higher paying job. I see how successful their children are becoming in school. I see the tight knit community the families become. It is rewarding knowing that I help my families and my community with the job I do here every day. It is incredibly hard work – for the families as well as for our staff – and the work is incredibly rewarding.

This year RurAL CAP is building its 50th self-help home in the central Kenai Peninsula area. I believe that for self-help to continue to make the impact it does here, marketing and education are key. Many people don’t know this opportunity exists. We must market this program to the families who will benefit so they know it’s available. We need to educate our elected officials. They need to know the benefits of self-help housing, not just to the individual families, but also the community as a whole. This is vital so we can continue receiving the funding for the program.

They know how to maintain their home. They can afford their home. They have learned new life skills and, most importantly, they have pride in what they have accomplished.

Another challenge is recruiting qualified individuals and families. Many applicants have credit and budgeting challenges. Very low- and low-income individuals often do not have the resources needed to overcome these obstacles. They also have no idea where to start and need guidance throughout the process. Unfortunately, the Kenai Peninsula does not have a local credit counseling agency. The nearest one is located 150 miles away in Anchorage. A local credit counseling agency is needed. To assist in recruiting self-help families into the future, it is critical that our young people are taught the skills they need to take care of themselves financially. Our children are largely unprepared for the financial responsibilities of being an adult when they get out on their own. I would like to see personal finance become a core class taught in all of the local high schools covering budgeting, fiscal responsibility, credit, loans, investments, and savings. Well-educated children become well-educated adults and are better able to support themselves and their families. If these personal finance classes were offered a year or two before the families are ready to become homeowners and a local credit counseling agency were available to them, my recruitment numbers would increase dramatically.

For self-help housing to continue for another 50 years, funding must be available to support it. At this time, self-help is dependent upon government funding both to operate it (USDA’s Section 523 Technical Assistance (TA) Grant) and to fund the construction of the individual homes for each homeowner (USDA Rural Development Section 502 Direct loan). Reliance on federal funding is a challenge for several reasons. First, we never know from year-to-year if the funding will be available or how deep the cuts will be in any given year. It’s going to take continued presence on Capitol Hill and communication with our elected officials. Policymakers must be informed about the need for ongoing federal support for this program. This program does and will continue to stimulate housing production in underserved, rural communities where private developers can’t meet the entire demand for affordable homes. They need to see success stories firsthand to understand that this program works and is helping to provide the ongoing need for decent, affordable homeownership in rural America. Second, we must seek alternative ways to model the program to form partnerships with other lenders for the individual construction and permanent loans our families need. There may be a time in the future when the federal funding is severely reduced or is not available. We must address this distinct possibility by having alternate funding sources available when that time comes. To do this, we need to start forming partnerships with housing authorities, technical assistance providers, and local lenders.

The Self-Help Housing program provides a time-tested way for low-income families to achieve the goal of homeownership. It extends tangible resources that these families can use to be successful. It teaches valuable life skills that flow into all other areas of their lives. It gives hope, pride, determination, strength, and accountability. It is my sincere hope that we can continue providing this program in rural America for many years to come.

Mi’shell French is the Homeownership Program Supervisor at the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc (RurAL CAP), a private, statewide, nonprofit organization working to improve the quality of life for low-income Alaskans.

So Much Progress, So Much Left To Do!

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

by Peter Carey

A simple concept still holds promise in a complicated housing world

More than five decades have passed since the first USDA-financed mutual self-help homes were built in Goshen, California. Much has changed in that time. Computers, cell phones, the internet are the main channels of communication. We’ve been through wars on other continents. We’ve landed on the moon and we’ve eliminated diseases like polio. What we take for granted today would have been science fiction when Lilia Jimenez turned the first spade of dirt for her self-help home in Goshen in 1963.

And yet, many things remain the same, especially for those in the lower rungs of our economy. An unacceptable number of people still live in poverty, and the housing conditions in rural America still pose an obstacle to those who desire the opportunity for a decent home.

Through those five decades one constant has been the fact that responsible homeownership remains the single best way for lower-income people to build the assets needed to move beyond poverty.

img 3262Lilia Jimenez (center) and her family built one of the first self-help homes in the early 1960s. Lilia still occupies the home she helped construct more than 50 years ago in Goshen, CA.

For the early pioneers of mutual self-help housing, the concept of homeownership was a simple one. It wasn’t seen as an investment, or a path to upward mobility, though in hindsight, it was both. For those who lived in generally substandard rental housing, the opportunity to own a home was the first step towards stability. It was the opportunity to provide a safe and secure home for their children. And although the cost of land and building materials was not within the control of potential homeowners, they could reduce the cost of building a home by contributing most of the labor needed to build. And hard work was the one commodity they could provide. We say that “opportunity knocks.” But sometimes it goes unrecognized because it comes disguised as hard work. Self-help homebuilders open that door, and by joining together with neighbors, they seize opportunity, one nail at a time.

In the early days of mutual self-help housing, there was a great deal of skepticism not just of the program, but of the very idea that farmworkers and other low-income people could be good homeowners. Five decades later we know that the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” And there are builders from those early days who have seen generations of children who have benefited from their families’ investment. There are stories across rural America of self-help children who have gone on to become contractors, teachers, elected officials, and business owners, and who take an active role in their communities.

Today we know even more about the negative individual and societal impacts of poor housing conditions and the value of investing in decent housing. Studies have shown that housing quality can affect the ability to learn and socialize in school. There is growing evidence that growing up in a decent home reduces healthcare costs, not just during childhood, but into adulthood. Despite the experience of the recent recession, we know that the single best vehicle for growing assets is homeownership.

Today about 100 nonprofit organizations provide the opportunity for lower-income families to join with their neighbors to invest their sweat and labor to build homes for themselves, their children, and their future. The common denominator that makes this effort possible is USDA Rural Housing Service, which provides both technical assistance funding to the nonprofit sponsor and affordable mortgage financing to the homeowner. Combined with “sweat equity” it is a homeownership model that really works for rural families who can’t afford market rate homes, for neighbors who share in building their dreams, and for the communities they call home.

Fifty thousand homes, affordable, safe, built by the hands that own them. Each home is a legacy for the next generation. For the tens of thousands of children who grow up in a self-help home, each home is a lesson in opportunity, a demonstration of potential, proof that by joining together and working hard, lives truly can be changed. It is a concept that speaks to something that is an inherent part of the American heritage. From the barn-raisings of early days, communities have come together to do the things that could not be achieved alone. It is hard to walk away unmoved from a visit with families who are sharing in the long days and hard work of building homes together. It symbolizes the best of our society and speaks to a universal desire for community. This is the spirit of mutual self-help housing.

Peter Carey served as President and CEO of Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) in Visalia, California from 1990 until his retirement in June 2014. In addition to many other roles over the years, he also served as the Acting Chief Operating Officer of NeighborWorks America from July 2014 through February 2015. He continues to be engaged in housing and community development issues and is currently a member of Housing Assistance Council Board of Directors.