50 Years, 50,000 Homes

Self-Help Housing Changed Our Lives

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

by Noelle McKay and Stefanie Kompathoum

Families share their experience with the Self-Help Housing Program

In 1998, Mike and Beth Kantner moved their then family of eight from a rented double-wide trailer to their new self-help home. “At that time Mike was working installing siding and a down payment was out of reach, but we were willing to work and we spent the next 12 months constructing our home,” says Beth.

The Kantners’ motivation for building a home was to create a place where they could provide a strong foundation for family, but the process was not without its short-term sacrifices. Beth explained that during the construction process workdays often went past children’s bedtimes, family meals were difficult to schedule, and homeschooling routines were disrupted.

The short-term sacrifices, however, were worth the long-term investment. “Having the home allowed me to care for my family the way I wanted to by remaining home and homeschooling my children. In a rental situation where payments increase over time, I would not have been able to maintain the same lifestyle,” says Beth.

Over the last 17 years the Kantners have raised and homeschooled their 11 children in their self-help home. During that time, the Kantners were able to finish the basement and turn the area into useful space for a den, storage, and schooling. Two kids who are currently in college can stay home while in school and lower their costs, giving the second generation a financial step up with less debt upon graduation. “It’s a way to get ahead for you and your kids,” emphasizes Beth.

In addition to providing a strong foundation for family, self-help housing can also be a springboard for growth. When Rachel Stein moved from out of state with her two toddlers she did not know anyone outside of work. “I was literally selling my furniture and other possessions to try and keep up with the cost of childcare and rent. My apartment was tiny and we had to eat dinner on the couch because there was no other room. I was working and working but never moving forward. My coworker suggested that I apply for self-help housing with Housing Assistance Corporation.”

IMG 4704

Like Beth Kantner, Rachel struggled with the reduction of family time during the construction schedule. She found the process both physically and emotionally draining and because she did not have family or a support network present, she had to pay for childcare expenses while at her day job and at the construction site. “I was using a huge chunk of my paycheck for childcare while paying my bills on a credit card. After moving in I was able to pay off my debt using my tax return. But without a doubt, this program has impacted my life and children’s future for the better. Even as an individual who has a college degree and is working full-time, I would not have been able to afford to purchase my own home without self-help.”

In addition to providing affordable monthly payments, Rachel’s home also offers an enhanced quality of life. Her children are safe playing in the backyard and Rachel has improved her property with rain barrels and a garden. “I love to cook and garden. I am able to bring something in from the garden to cook at night and meals are held around the family dinner table.”

Since moving in Rachel has remarried and had another child. Due to her husband’s work opportunity they will soon be moving to another state. “Life takes you in different places, but we have this place to start from and that makes a difference. There is an asset, an investment to help with the next step.”

Sean Rose’s experience in self-help housing has also been an opportunity for growth. After completing the construction of his own self-help home he was asked to join the Housing Assistance Corporation staff as a construction assistant. Later he was promoted to Self-Help Construction Supervisor and has been involved in the construction of 89 homes. “I can’t think of a better starting point than self-help housing and not just because of the house, but because of the community building skills you get from working in a group, getting to know your neighbors, and learning about construction.”

Sean, his wife Stacy, and their three children have been living in their home for 13 years. “Having your own home is a comfort,” explains Sean. “You don’t have to bounce around and feel pressured to find somewhere else to live all the time. It’s just one less thing to worry about because raising kids and day-to-day life is stressful enough as it is. The house is no longer one of those stresses.”

Life can take surprising turns and having an affordable home can mean the difference between stability and vulnerability. For Tokisha Ingram, home has meant a comfortable place to live with a disability that arrived unexpectedly. Prior to participating in self-help, Tokisha and her two children aged 14 and 17 were renting a three-bedroom home. She was a small business owner of a beauty salon. For two years, she worked with a credit counselor to reduce her debt, move into a smaller apartment, and solidify her finances to qualify for the self-help program. Picking out her own lot made the whole process real to her. To Tokisha, owning her own new home meant that she “didn’t have to adopt anyone else’s problems.” “I was super excited, just knowing it’s mine. You have more appreciation when you see what goes into it from the ground up” she says.

Tokisha’s homeownership dream was threatened when she fell critically ill during the final stages of construction. Ultimately her illness caused a hospital stay of several months and permanently affected her mobility. During her illness, family, friends, neighbors and program staff made a few changes to accommodate her wheelchair and ensured that her home would be there for her and her family. Today, five years later, Tokisha is able to live independently thanks to the affordability of her home. She states her appreciation this way, “You have to want it. It’s hard work, but what you get in the end is worth so much more.”

Homeownership has been closely tied to America’s cultural identity for generations. In the case of self-help housing the program’s success and longevity are due not only to the product but to the process and people who create the homes. Sean Rose says of his experience both building his own home and leading other groups, “It’s always nice to see the people in the end. You go to work every day then you get off work and go to the job site to work some more. You’re dealing with people who are going to be your neighbors. Sometimes you get along with them, sometimes you don’t, but you have to be there. Once you get to the end of the process most of the difficulties just go away. I remember standing out on my front porch and just looking out. It’s such a feeling of accomplishment knowing you had a huge role in building your own home.”

Noelle McKay is the Executive Director and Stefanie Kompathoum is a Volunteer Program Coordinator of the Housing Assistance Corporation, a private, non-profit organization committed to providing safe and affordable housing for persons of limited income living in Henderson County, NC and surrounding areas.