The Common Good

Effective Sweat-Equity Rural Housing at Risk

A low-cost, highly successful rural housing self-help program is at risk from both sides of the aisle. A year ago, the Sojourners article Seven Ways Home described:

 the “mutual self-help” model, where families in rural America first qualify for a mortgage, then partner with seven to 11 other families who will all build their homes together.

The model first gained prominence in the Central Valley of California in the 1960s through the work of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The Quaker group had listened to the housing dreams of migrant farm workers, many of whom lived in squalid conditions—30 families might share one rusty faucet. In response, AFSC offered the mutual self-help model: Families would work together to build their homes, with no one moving in until all the homes were completed. This built community as well as housing. The success of this model inspired the formation of Self-Help Enterprises, based in Visalia, California, which has helped more than 5,000 families build homes. The model has been so successful that today some self-help housing is sponsored by the USDA’s Rural Development program.

Now, the Daily Yonder reports that the program is under threat:

Self-Help Housing is unique among the panoply of federal programs. Under it, nonprofit housing developers provide training, technical assistance and close supervision to small teams of future owners who build their own homes. Each family invests roughly 1,200 hours, creating what's known as "sweat equity." Construction professionals do the rest. 502 direct loans finance the debt. 

The average annual income of participant families is $27,000. Most are minorities. Their repayment record is better than higher income families.

The key to this success story is the assistance provided to participant families by nonprofits. But instead of increasing funding — or at least holding funding level — the Obama administration’s FY 2013 budget reduces funding for these groups by two thirds.. 

The House version cuts this program by half.

This classic, highly effective pairing of citizen initiative with governement aid shouldn't be undermined by short-sighted cuts.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners magazine.