50 Years, 50,000 Homes

Technical Assistance Is the Essential Ingredient to Self-Help Housing

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

by Suzy Huard

USDA’S Section 523 Technical Assistance Grants make Mutual Self-Help housing possible

Community Concepts, Inc. (CCI) based in South Paris, Maine, has been helping families reach their goal of homeownership through the Mutual Self-Help Housing program since 1993. To date, families have built 237 homes with six more under construction. An additional 35 families have purchased and rehabilitated homes through an innovative approach to the program. CCI’s Self-Help Housing program would not exist without the Section 523 Mutual Self-Help Technical Assistance Grant, commonly referred to as the Self-Help Grant program, funding provided by USDA Rural Development. This two-year grant allows organizations like CCI to provide homeownership opportunities to very low- and low-income families.

The Self-Help Grant program funding is critical in order to hire skilled employees, pay for office and administrative expenses, purchase tools for the families to use during construction, and pay for any training needed to assist the families such as construction and credit counseling.

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The Self-Help grant funding can be used to recruit families to participate in the program. CCI does this through radio, newspaper articles, informational meetings, and social media. We have an agency website with a page devoted to the Self-Help program. Our web page includes information about our program, a link to our brochure, and coming soon, an electronically fillable pre-application. If the public does not know that the Self-Help program exists, then there is no program to help the families achieve homeownership.

CCI’s Self-Help Housing program would not exist without the Section 523 Mutual Self-Help Technical Assistance Grant

CCI assists families with obtaining long-term mortgage funding through USDA’s Rural Development agency. USDA Rural Development offers financing with interest rates as low as 1 percent for qualifying families and no down payment. CCI’s Self-Help Group Worker guides the families through the mortgage application process and works with families who need credit counseling.

Training is an important component of the self-help process. CCI used some of its Self-Help Grant program funds for homebuyer education certification training for our Group Worker. This allows the Group Worker to teach families about topics such as mortgages, credit, budgeting, membership agreement and teamwork. The Self-Help Manger and the Site Supervisor also provide pre-construction training about construction safety, basic construction skills, construction contracts, house plans and hands-on tool training. This training typically lasts about
10 weeks.

Other uses of the Section 523 grant funds include the purchase of the power tools used in the construction of the homes and vans to carry the tools between building sites.

After completion of the preconstruction training, the homeowners close on their USDA Rural Development-funded mortgages. The Self-Help Group Worker attends these closings with the families to help with any questions and to be a friendly face in a new situation. Rural Development sets up a supervised bank account to pay for construction materials and related costs. CCI’s Self-Help Bookkeeper assures that construction-related expenses are paid.

Families start construction together under the supervision of the Self-Help Construction Site Supervisor when the lot has been cleared and the foundation has been poured. The Site Supervisor is always on site with the families guiding them and teaching them skills as they go along through the construction process. The families and Site Supervisor work one night a week and both Saturday and Sunday, eight hours each day. The families work through all four seasons. They build through the hot and humid summers, the freezing blowing snow in the winter and everything else in between.

Each month the families meet at the CCI office with the Site Supervisor and the Self-Help Group Worker. They go over any issues that might arise, talk about their progress and what comes next. The Group Worker discusses homeownership issues, such as maintaining a septic system and other house maintenance.

Over the course of construction, the families fill out and sign their weekly time sheets. The Self-Help Bookkeeper keeps track of all the hours to assure that the families are getting their required hours in.

It takes about 10-12 months to complete the six homes. Once the construction is complete, the families, the Site Supervisor, Group Worker and Rural Development employee meet to conduct a final inspection of each individual home. The Rural Development employee completes the final inspection of the homes and the new homeowners receive the keys. There is usually a ceremony congratulating the families on their great accomplishment. The next group of six families also attends the ceremony and the “golden shovel” passes to them to start their journey through the Self-Help program.

The Self-Help Program would not be able to help the families it does without the Section 523 Mutual Self-Help Technical Assistance grant. The grant funding allows CCI to provide a valuable service at no cost to our families. With this funding CCI has a group of technically-educated self-help employees, such as the Group Worker, Bookkeeper, Site Supervisors and Program Manager.

Suzy Huard is the Housing Improvement Services Bookkeeper at Community Concepts, Inc. in South Paris, Maine. CCI offers a variety of housing, economic development and social services for Maine’s communities of Androscoggin and Oxford Counties. CCI’s self-help program also serves Franklin, Cumberland,and Kennebec counties. CCI’s services support both the basic needs of low-income families and promote self-sufficiency.