Rural housing program marks 50-year milestone

Peppered around the Central Kenai Peninsula are islands of housing units easily attained by low-income, first-time homebuyers.

No down payment is required, and mortgage installments are less than the average rent. The only caveat — the buyers build the houses by hand.

Families that qualify for the Self-Help Housing program run by non-profit Rural Alaska Community Action Program Inc. (RurAL CAP) are some of the few locals able to acquire the sparse affordable housing that is available in the area, said CAP’s Homeownership Program Supervisor Mi’shell French.

“Families are not simply given their home like it’s some kind of an entitlement, which is sometimes the case in rural Alaska,” French said. “They have to work hard for it.”

Self-Help Housing families receive essential funding from the USDA’s Rural Development Direct program nationwide. In Alaska, RurAL CAP partners with the USDA and Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s Home Ownership Development Program to operate Alaska’s Self-Help program.

RurAL CAP celebrated local and national milestones June 12, on Kobuk Street in Soldotna — the site of the 50th home to go up on the peninsula through RurAL CAP’s Self-Help Housing. It is also Self-Help Housing’s 50th anniversary and 50,000 homes have been constructed nationwide.

Ryan Beckel, 22, is building the Kenai Peninsula’s 50th self-help home. He is employed at Fred Meyer in Soldotna, and had a good line of credit, which made his application easy to approve, he said. He has been working on his home for the past five months.

“I am doing this so I never have to pay rent in my life,” Beckel said. “I grew up with my family paying month-to-month (rent). I didn’t realize at the time they were paying all of that into someone else’s pocket.”

Staff from the national office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend last Friday’s event, alongside state directors and staff from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan’s offices, French said.

French said the USDA grant was used to sponsor the program, recruit and counsel homebuyers, manage the homebuyer group, and supervise the construction projects.

Between 16 and 18 units are usually built during each 2-year grant cycle.

College students, teachers, retired residents, disabled veterans, corrections officers and butchers are only a few of the professions held by the 146 individuals that have been housed through the program since 2008, French said.

“Many of those involved in our program are younger families and individuals,” French said.

Beckel is working near other program participants, but will be moving in to his new house alone. He said he has already learned skills that are opening doors to new professions including woodworking and roofing.

“There are quite a few moving parts,” French said.

Buyers have to qualify for a mortgage loan and their gross annual income must be below USDA limits, which French said depend on family size. They also need to complete 65 percent of the labor on the homes with a required 30 hours per-week of actively building, considered “sweat equity,” and negates the need for a down payment, she said.

Building the home on top of a full-time job is a challenge, even with Beckel’s father helping out once a week. Still, he is putting his “best foot forward.”

“I have been working about seven days a week for months,” Beckel said. “They estimate if we keep on top of the work, by the end of the year we will be able to move in.”

The value of their work amounts to nearly $30,000 by the time they move in, French said. Units of between 6 to 11 houses have been constructed from Sterling to Soldotna to Kalifornsky Beach Road, French said.

Every family in the unit builds at once, so by the time the homes are finished the neighbors have grown very close, she said.

Beckel said the group he is moving in with is one of the youngest overall that has built and received homes in Alaska. The neighbors are easy to get along with, and assist each other with work on the homes, he said.

“The sense of accomplishment they have when they get to move in is undeniable. They know how to maintain their home. They can afford their home,” French said. “This transcends into every other facet of their lives. Self-help housing is not easy, but that is what sets it apart from all other programs.”

Kelly Sullivan is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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