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Sweat as Currency: Families Become Home Owners by Building Their Own Homes

October 6, 2015

KCET Los Angeles 

By Miguel Angel Vazquez, AICP and Karla Martinez |

This story was produced in partnership with The Coachella Valley Housing Coalition and Building Healthy Communities in the Eastern Coachella Valley, an initiative of the California Endowment.

During his recent historic visit to the U.S., Pope Francis declared: "There is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for the lack of housing." Indeed, anyone who has experienced the lack of adequate housing can attest to the magnitude of the impact this has on families.

For much of Juan Rodriguez's life, housing was an ongoing challenge for his family as they lived and worked in the Coachella Valley. He remembers that as a young child, his then teenage parents, Juan Antonio and Elizabeth Rodriguez, could not pay for rent and moved into his grandparents' apartment. The apartment happened to be an affordable housing project managed by Coachella Valley Housing Coalition (CVHC). That would be the first time CVHC helped Rodriguez and his family find a home.

The second time was in 2002 when Rodriguez and his family were finally able to move into their own home, one they had built themselves in Mecca, CA through another CVHC program called Self-Help Housing. As the name implies, the program helps families help themselves by building their homes.

Although Rodriguez was too young to participate in the home-building process, he remembers those lengthy months when his parents and other families helped each other build their homes. Today, now a young city planner working for the City of Indio (and former employee of CVHC), Rodriguez can speak to the special community chemistry that is created by this program that finally helped his parents become homeowners.

Moving into a new home was a landmark moment for Juan Rodriguez and his family.

"All these people understand each other, they share similar values and face the same struggles. They encouraged each other to do the work. The program creates stronger community bonds," says Rodriguez.

Juan Rodriguez's story illustrates how CVHC shapes the lives of low-income residents and empowers them to become homeowners through one of its most prominent programs. The CVHC has known the meaning of Pope Francis' maxim even before the coalition's inception in 1982. To date, the organization has provided more than 4,000 apartments and homes for low-income households in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.


Sweat as Currency
The words 'home ownership' crosses the mind of many families in the Eastern Coachella Valley, even if it's just a fleeting, seemingly unattainable wish. For the vast majority of farm workers, the concept of home ownership is hard to grasp.

Consider this: according to the Community Foundation, in 2012 the median household income in Riverside County was $52,621. According to the 2009-2013 American Community Survey, it is estimated that the median earnings of a male working in the agricultural fields is $15,542 (for women it is estimated at $13,466). What this means is that farm workers' families with a single provider have a 30% less chance of becoming a home owner than families earning what the median household income is for Riverside County. Lastly, according to Zillow.com, the median home value in Riverside County is $306,400. If we do the math, it would take about 20 years for a farm worker to use his entire salary to pay just for the principal of a home loan.

It takes approximately 1600 hours of labor to build a house. This labor is counted as labor equity toward the purchase of a home.

How can farm workers then, have access to the American Dream?
According to Nadia Villagrán, Director of Communications at CVHC, the Mutual Self-Help Program has proven to be successful because it involves participants using "sweat equity" as currency. What this means is that a down payment on a house comes from building your own home in a team with your future neighbors.

In June, CHVC inaugurated a new Self-Help housing community with the opening of 205 new homes in the Los Jardines subdivision of Coachella. These families join the 50,000 other families that have benefited from Mutual Self Help Housing, which is a national effort of the National Rural Self-Help Association. This agency falls within the US Department of Agriculture. The Mutual Self-Help Housing program serves dozens of rural and very low-income communities throughout the country, including six locations in California.

Building homes among friends, family and neighbors creates a unique sense of community. Photo courtesy of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.

The Mutual Self-Help program is a "process that creates a sense of ownership, sense of place and sense of community," according to Nadia Villagran. Cathy Creswell, former acting director at the California Department of Housing and Community Development agrees and notes that, "The Self-Help model has been and should continue to be a fundamental affordable housing strategy in rural California. Research has demonstrated the success of this model in increasing home ownership, especially among minority households, stabilizing families, creating wealth, and building strong, healthy communities." Creswell is currently a member of the California Planning Roundtable.

Building Homes, Neighborhoods and Communities
Edith Quintero and her two children, Jamel and Fryda Gutierrez, along with her partner Cesar moved into their highly anticipated, new home in April of 2013. "We worked for an entire year, I could no longer wait to move into my new home. Although it was time-consuming nothing is ever accomplished without a struggle."

Quintero and her family represent one of the 1,600 families who have benefited from the CVHC Self-Help program which is a lengthy, often tedious and harsh process that requires the highest levels of leadership, commitment, drive and an enormous desire to become homeowner. The end result is rewarding.

Quintero is elated and relieved to live in her new home not as a renter, but as an owner. "It has been everything I dreamed of. The capability one has to make their [own] home and how they wish [it to be] is incredible... I don't have a [landlord] to respond to, [which] becomes difficult after a certain amount of time."

For many families, becoming home owners is at the heart of the American Dream. Photo courtesy of Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.

"It's all for my children, they like any other deserve a home. The step that I took was one of my greatest accomplishments and I want more families to feel the way I did when I was handed the keys to my new home." Her wish continues to become a reality for others.

Applicants like Edith have been able to construct their home in accordance to their income level, good credit and ability and willingness to complete the labor requirements. According to Villagrán, anyone who meets CVHC's income and family size criteria is eligible for this program.

The Mutual Self-Help program can be summarized as a seven step process:

 1. Apply to the program-- Families typically learn about the program through a friend, a family member, a radio spot or even through social media like the CVHC's Facebook page. According to CVHC's Villagrán, a total of 19,468 applications have been submitted to date.

 2. Credit evaluation-- Once the application is submitted, a credit scan is conducted. Typically, applicants are referred to the financial counselor who will guide them on improving or fixing their credit history. In addition, they will be provided with the opportunity to learn how to manage their household budget.

 3. Choose the location-- Depending on CVHC's available locations and available funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), applicants will determine where they would want to live and would get an idea of when the funding will be available.

 4. Interview the family-- If selected, an interview will be scheduled for the entire family. This step, like any other application process, is crucial in determining the character and level of commitment the family has to fulfill their obligations.

 5. USDA approves the construction loan-- Since the Mutual Self-Help Program is a funded through grants, in the form of construction loans, from the USDA, applicants ultimately depend on the ability of this agency to supply the loans.

 6. Home Building-- For a period of 10-12 months, 10 families will embark on the arduous journey of building their own homes. Everyone builds every home together and no one moves in until all are complete. Anyone in the family over 18 years of age is able to participate in the home building process which approximately totals about 1600 hours. The work includes preparing the land, building foundations, framing, roofing, etc., essentially everything that does not require a license like plumbing or electricity.

 7. Moving in after final inspection-- This last step means a complete transformation of a family who may have been living in an apartment, a garage in somebody else's home, a mobile home, etc. "Once you begin building, you start to take ownership of every part of the house. Having the ability to build [your own home] has limitless benefits, she expresses renting over and over again wasn't the way we wanted to live anymore," Edith said.

 

Though home ownership becomes a further out of reach for many in California, the Mutual Self-Help program is designed to assist low-income, rural communities. Photo courtesy of Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.

For Juan Rodriguez the self-help program is a way to turn faith and dreams into reality.

"To people who do not have much but their dreams and aspirations, one small program such as the self-help can make a big difference in their lives," he said. "Sometimes all people want are a simple and essential things in life, food at their table and a roof above their head. The Self-Help program helps people attain that essential and common dream of owning a home, achieving the American Dream and to live a happy life with their family and community."

 




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