Mutual Self-Help Housing closes homeownership gap for families with low-incomes

Catherine Nolte
Fort Smith Times Record
The staff of the Homeownership & Asset Development Center at Crawford-Sebastian Community Development Council welcome Lizeth Solis and her two sons to their new home in Cedarville.

For families with low incomes, homeownership can seem like an impossible dream.

This dream turned into reality for Lizeth Solis, who received the keys to her new home in Cedarville on July 1.

Like Solis, new homeowners across the River Valley have received assistance through Mutual Self-Help Housing. The program allows individuals and families to use volunteer hours contributing to the construction of their home as their down payment. 

Solis laid the floors, did the trim and painted the walls of her new home.

"It was like little baby steps, and I knew it would take time," Solis said. She added that it didn't really sink in that she was a homeowner until she received her keys. 

Mutual Self-Help Housing is a program out of the Crawford-Sebastian Community Development Council located in Fort Smith. It is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, which designed the program to "very-low- and low-income families get affordable, clean and safe homes of their own in rural areas," according to their website.

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The homes are energy-efficient, which helps homeowners to save on utility bills. During the building process, there are a variety of choices to make the homes unique.

"There's different colored siding, different colored brick, the trim, doors ... there are different ways you can do this," Alan Risley, construction supervisor, said.

"I don't think we've built two that are any where close to exactly the same," Caleb Brown, director of the Homeownership & Asset Development Center, said.

Since 2005, Mutual Self-Help Housing has built around 135 houses in the area.

Caleb Brown, director of the Homeownership & Asset Development Center, and Alan Risley, construction supervisor, stand outside a home being built in Van Buren.

Through the sweat equity portion of the program, groups of four to five families assist each other in building their homes and save on contractor costs.

"That's where the mutual self-help comes into play because they're helping others, too, and building a community ... It's a great program to get into a brand new home that is energy-efficient and they can afford even after they move in, which is important to us, too," Michael Fuchtman, rural housing manager, said.

Those interested in the program do not need prior construction experience. 

"Some of them aren't confident that they can do it, but Alan works closely with them. I said, 'If anyone can build a house with Alan, they can do it,'" Brown said.

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To qualify for the program, households of one to four people cannot make more than $43,450 a year, and households of five to eight people cannot make more than $57,350 in Sebastian and Crawford counties. For Franklin County, the income level is $43,300 for households of one to four people, and $57,150 for households of five to eight. 

The homeowners receive a subsidized loan with Rural Development with interest rates set depending on their income.

"If their income is low enough, the interest rate could be as low as 1%," Fuchtman said. He added that there is no down payment or out-of-pocket closing costs, except for builder's risk insurance. 

Once the family is in their home, the interest rate on their loan stays the same. 

"A lot of people with lower incomes only have mid-$500 to $600 monthly for a brand new home," Fuchtman said. 

If the family is unable to get a loan due to bad credit, the program still offers assistance for them. 

"We have counseling through our program that will help them get to compliance. If you're not ready to do it, we'll help you get there," Brown said. 

Families ultimately end up with a home that they are proud of, with a community of fellow homeowners and mutual support.

"They can say, 'We built our own house.' They did. It's a bragging right that you have," Risley said. 

For more information on the Mutual Self-Help Housing program, call 479-785-2303 ext. 109 or email mfuchtman@cscdccaa.org.

Catherine Nolte is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She can be reached at cnolte@swtimes.com.