50 Years, 50,000 Homes

Looking Back: The Beginnings and Evolution of USDA’s Self-Help Housing Movement

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

by Bob Marshall

Early efforts in rural California became a Self-Help Housing model for the nation

In 1937, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) helped 50 coal mining families build their own homes in western Pennsylvania. This was the beginning of a movement that crystallized in 1963 when the first self-help housing homeowner loans were made to families through the USDA’s Farmers Home Administration (FmHA).

Bard McAllister, working for the AFSC in Tulare County, Calif., pushed the concept of self-help housing on behalf of farmworkers. Until 1961, the FmHA could make housing loans to farmers, but not to farmworkers. Bard McAllister worked with the Secretary of the Commission on Agricultural Life and Labor in Washington, D.C. to draft legislation making agricultural workers eligible for housing loans. Congress included this provision in the Housing Act of 1961.

The first “official” self-help housing loans under this Act were made to three families in Goshen, Calif. in January 1963. With Howard Washburn as supervisor, the AFSC operated this initial program. At first, loans could be made only for the houses, not for the land. To work around that stipulation, the AFSC purchased the land with other loans and used a grant from the Rosenberg Foundation for technical assistance. By 1965, Congress removed the restriction against including land in the FmHA loans.

Also, in 1964, the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was created. In 1965, Bard McAllister, Howard Washburn, and Everett Krackov, Director of the OEO-funded Tulare County Community Action Agency (TCCAA), applied for a grant from the Migrant Division of the OEO to administer a self-help housing program. Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) was created as a nonprofit corporation and, initially as a delegate agency of the TCCAA, received OEO funds.

In August 1966, I was hired to assist Howard Washburn and others to administer SHE. The day my family and I arrived in California from Pennsylvania, Howard, his wife, and two of their four daughters were killed in a head-on auto accident. Such a tragedy. Three months later, the Board of SHE asked me to be the executive director. I continued in that role until my retirement in 1989. This was a great and challenging opportunity for me and I am most thankful for it.

Man with woodPhoto by George Ballis

In the early years, it seemed like the most difficult task was getting family loans approved by FmHA. Every family’s loan application had to be approved by both the FmHA county supervisor and the FmHA county committee. The latter was composed of three persons, usually farmers. In some counties it seemed like the primary rule was to reject families. The committees were concerned with repayment ability and rightfully so. But OEO was concerned with getting people out of poverty and so were we. The marriage between OEO and FmHA was never a smooth one. In 1970, the FmHA county committee was eliminated, making things a bit easier.

OEO staff liked our program and wanted SHE to work statewide in California. However, SHE board and staff decided that the San Joaquin Valley was a more manageable service area and that SHE would offer technical assistance and support to other agencies wishing to start self-help housing programs.

This we did, and soon several other self-help housing nonprofits cropped up in California. We were also asked for help from agencies in other states. In a sense, SHE was the self-help housing model for the nation.

In 1967, Clay Cochran created the International Self-Help Housing Association (ASHHA), later renamed Rural America, with the purpose of spreading the concept of self-help housing and providing training and expertise to organizations beginning their own self-help programs. SHE supported and worked closely with ISHHA in these endeavors.

In 1973, various self-help organizations came together to create the California Self-Help Housing Association (CSHHA), which met periodically for mutual support. At that time, housing programs for the poor were getting squeezed for funds. CSHHA held a statewide
“Self-Help Housing Day” in Galt, a town near Sacramento, where the Rural California Housing Corporation was building self-help houses. Approximately 500 people attended the event. The state Senate and the state Assembly designated a “Self-Help Housing Week” in March 1973, commending self-help programs for their valuable contributions to community life.

In a sense, SHE was the self-help housing model for the nation.

SHE has also played an active role in the National Self-Help Housing Association, working closely with the National Rural Housing Coalition, and helping support the housing lobbying work carried out for both groups by Bob Rapoza and Rapoza Associates.

SHE recognized that the OEO was not a permanent agency and that one day it would be dismantled. So, by 1971 or 1972, SHE began working with other agencies to identify and support a permanent home for the technical assistance (administrative) grants. FmHA seemed like the logical choice, and by 1972 legislation was approved to accommodate this transition. Thus in 1973, SHE wrote a grant proposal to FmHA for an eight-county, one-year plan to provide technical assistance support for self-help housing. This was approved and thus began the program, which continues nationwide today as Section 523.

Over the years, SHE has developed a solid working relationship with staff at FmHA, now the Rural Housing Service and USDA Rural Development. We felt that we were partners in a valuable home-building and family-building program, and the relationship has become a mutually supportive one. Certainly there are differences, and SHE stands up for the families when it seems they are not getting a fair shake. However, the evolution of the relationship between these two agencies since 1966 has been great.

Additionally, in 1971, the Housing Assistance Council was created, again with Clay Cochran as a major contributor. HAC had a technical assistance staff and a substantial land loan fund. SHE became an early and frequent borrower from that fund.

Since the inception of SHE, volunteerism has been a major factor for the organization. For a period of four or five years, Franciscan Brothers assisted in construction roles. They helped with land development, carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. They lived with building families and helped kids with their homework in the evenings, a great service. In a six- or eight-year period, 120 VISTA volunteers provided critical assistance to the program. Their roles included providing family education and training, helping to start a housing rehabilitation program, giving social service support, donating construction assistance to supervisors, and much more. Several of these contributors have continued in the field and are directing self-help housing programs today. My successor, Peter Carey, directed the program for 24 years, retiring in 2014. Tom Collishaw was appointed to the role upon Peter’s retirement. Both men were one-time VISTA Volunteers at SHE.

SHE also encourages work camps of young people spending a week or more working with the families. Many years ago when our daughter, Gwyn, was 15, she was in a seven-week AFSC work camp held with a building group in Planada, Calif. These young high school students were housed in a partially completed self-help home. They worked along with the families on their homes. I’m not sure who benefitted most, but I think it was the young people.

A statement from Mrs. Salvador Gutierrez, a SHE participant, stays with me to this day. She said, “It is difficult to express in words what it means to me and my family to be able to see our own home being built. It is beyond any dreams. The problems have been many and the hours long, but the feeling of having something of our own helps to make me forget the years of helplessness and depressed feelings. I believe that with faith in God and by people working together hand in hand, we can accomplish whatever we want. We don’t want anything handed to us; we just want an opportunity to work with our hands and pull ourselves out of the situation we are in.” This is the essence of the self-help movement.

As I look back upon that experience today, I realize how fortunate I was to have been part of it. Seeing families working together and then gathering with them at their move-in ceremony are highlights. Getting to know and work with the many fine people at SHE, HAC and related endeavors have been my great privilege. May the work throughout this nation continue well into the future!

Bob Marshall became Executive Director of Self-Help Enterprises (SHE)in 1966, a position he held until 1990. Under his leadership, SHE became the largest mutual self-help housing organization in the nation. Marshall’s influence reached far beyond California’s San Joaquin Valley, and he was active in the growth of mutual self-help programs across rural America. He was a founder of the National Rural Self-Help Housing Association, a member of the Housing Assistance Council board of directors and a respected mentor and encouraging voice for rural housing. Bob and his wife Joy are still active in the community of Visalia, California.