Chris Caye can’t wait for July 16. On that date, she and seven other families will celebrate moving into their newly built houses in Somers. They will be homeowners in the Flathead, an area where finding so-called “affordable housing” can be a notoriously difficult task. But these families didn’t find these homes, they built them, through the Mutual Self-Help Housing program, a service of Northwest Montana Human Resources.
“There was just no way that I was going to be able to afford anything without getting into some kind of a program,” said Caye, a 46-year-old employee for the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “I think that people don’t know that there are a variety of programs out there.”
Yet despite the widely acknowledged shortage of homes in the Flathead that working families can afford, the Self-Help program’s staff has yet to fill openings for half of the 16 homes in Kalispell it plans to build this year. While Habitat for Humanity has managed to find families for the five homes it will build this year, it is already actively searching for next year’s families, anticipating it will take almost a year to find five families that are both eligible for the program, and willing to put in the required work.
The Self-Help Housing program is similar to Habitat for Humanity, but operates under the U.S. Department of Agriculture where aspiring homeowners work nine months or longer to build their own homes, and that “sweat equity” is considered their down payment. These homeowners then make payments through a low interest Rural Development loan to the USDA. To be eligible for the Self-Help Housing program, the family’s income cannot exceed 80 percent of Flathead County’s median income. Habitat for Humanity, which operates as a non-profit, serves families making 60 percent or less of the median income.
Patti Gregerson, executive director of the Flathead Valley’s Habitat for Humanity, estimates there are roughly 1,000 families in the county eligible for one of her agency’s starter homes, yet she must actively seek out applicants for the program.
“General awareness of the services in the valley is lacking,” Gregerson said. “When you see international advertisements that we’re building mud houses in some country, people aren’t thinking that we’re building starter homes for hard-working families in the Flathead.”
These programs have the materials, volunteers, home sites and funding in place; all they’re missing are families.
Jane Nolan, the acting director of the Self-Help program, said these services don’t just help the people who get homes, but the entire community benefits.
“Economic development in the valley is only going to grow as it relates to the growth in workforce housing,” Nolan said. “What we’re providing is not just affordable housing, but we’re providing workforce housing.”
Nolan and Gregerson said they face common misperceptions about their programs, which they think contributes to a lack of interest. Potential applicants may think the programs are giveaways to impoverished or homeless families, or that the homes are low quality, or that anyone who has had credit issues or debt is automatically disqualified.
In reality, Nolan said, the seven families she has lined up so far include people who work as teachers, firefighters, bank employees and city and county workers. Gregerson recently received applications from members of the Flathead Area Young Professionals. The aspiring homeowners must put in 35 hours per week of labor on their homes, between themselves and any volunteers they can recruit, working on all eight of the homes under construction. The program’s participants learn professional construction skills under the oversight of a USDA foreman, and the homes are well built and insulated.
Nolan concedes that the Self-Help Housing program’s acceptance criteria can be difficult to meet. Applicants must earn less than a certain income, yet still be able to make their house payments. And significant debt does disqualify some.
“Out of every ten applications, probably one of them makes it,” Nolan said. But the USDA considers some applicants who do have credit problems or debt, she added, particularly if the expenses are medical or child-related. And like Gregerson, Nolan thinks there are many people in the Flathead eligible for the Self-Help housing program who simply don’t know about it.
As for Caye, she is exhausted after more than a year of construction on her home, but feels exhilarated and gratified about the home she will move into next month.
“It is satisfying knowing that you built your own house,” Caye said. “They tell you right up front that it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and it is.”
“I can’t wait to get in,” she added.
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