Builders in self-help program feel 'blessed'

Self-help housing brought renters' dream of homeownership to life

Building a home in Steamboat Springs seemed like an unrealistic dream for Matt Irvin.

The snow groomer didn't have money for a down payment, and he assumed he would rent for as long as he lived here.

Yustine and Mike Doyle felt the same way.

They looked for opportunities to buy a home in local real estate ads and read the newspaper every week, always to no avail.

"There was nothing for us," Yustine Doyle said. "We couldn't afford anything here."

That was before self-help housing was introduced.

Last year, the Regional Affordable Living Foundation launched Routt County's first self-help housing program, "Hands-On Housing," which offers subsidized housing costs and loan programs for low- to moderate-income homebuyers who can help with the building process. Also, with the buyers doing much of their own construction, they save thousands in labor costs and earn more than $30,000 in equity as soon as they move in.

Irvin had no construction experience, but when he found out a friend was taking advantage of the program, he knew he could, too. "I thought it would be crazy not to," Irvin said.

Mike Doyle is a bartender, and Yustine Doyle has some construction experience, but lately she spends most of her time taking care of their children.

But having the skills didn't matter. When Mike Doyle heard about the program, he rushed off to its first meeting to sign up, his wife said.

In late September, the Doyles met Irvin, three other couples, and two single people who they would team up with to begin construction of seven homes in West End Village. The group includes an artist, a massage therapist, a ski instructor, a receptionist, a vacation planner and, most appropriately, a construction supervisor.

Working together

Six months into construction, all seven homes were progressing on schedule, Construction Supervisor Wolf Bennett said. (Bennett does not supervise the group building his own home; he is paid by RALF to teach the group about the elements of construction and oversee the building process.)

Each house is at about the same stage: siding is going up. Moving from unit to unit to keep each house in the same stage of building -- so the homes are finished about the same time -- requires a conscious effort by the team. They strive for this common goal because no one can move in until every unit is finished.

"They have to be a member of a working community, not just work as individuals," Bennett said. "They are constantly discovering how to work together."

Bennett is a former architect working toward a master's degree in social services. With an interest in teaching and working with people, and being a 14-year member of Outward Bound, Bennett seemed like just the right candidate for the job, RALF Executive Director Ellen Hoj said.

"They said, 'This is right up your alley," Bennett said. "I figured I could combine my skills for the good of the community."

Bennett was involved with the design of the self-help houses at West End Village and units in a second self-help project that received negative feedback from the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission in February.

The construction team has focused all its time on building. Starting out was difficult for the mostly inexperienced laborers, but they have learned.

"Some were afraid of the tools," Bennett said. "They didn't know what some of the tools were, but they're figuring it out. Now, they know what to do when they get here. Some of them say they don't want to get on the roof, and that's fine, we've got others who can work on the roof. They can go work somewhere else. We're pretty flexible."

Overcoming obstacles

Jeannie Casey is a single mother of two children. Between caring for them and working as a receptionist at the Routt County Sheriff's Office, she has to push herself to meet the required 30 hours of labor with the team each week.

She found it more difficult a few weeks ago when she got pneumonia. As a surprise relief, Casey's mother and sister drove from Illinois to Steamboat last week to fill in and make up her lost hours on the job.

"This is such a great project," said Casey's mother, Marla Cottrell, while rolling white paint on a thin piece of plywood to be used for an under-hang. "I was relieved when I heard about it, because (Casey) can finally permanently settle in somewhere. We thought we would help in case she got sicker and couldn't work. She's so excited about this. Her house payment will be less than rent she's paying now. She's excited she will get to have a garden."

Casey's sister, Amy Rapp, was in the crawlspace in the duplex next door, stapling reinforced plastic to the bottom of the floor joists to hold insulation.

Other group members have had their friends and family help as well, which has helped them stay on schedule for completion at the end of May.

"It's the journey, not the destination," Bennett said. "Learning about the solutions rather than focusing on the problems helps the problems go away."

Feeling 'blessed'

Irvin's dream soon will be reality. He said he is amazed he will own a home in Steamboat.

"I can't believe it," Irvin said, looking at his home-in-the-making. "I don't think it will sink in really until I've moved in."

"I feel blessed," Yustine Doyle said. "I come up here all the time, and I just can't believe it."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding Hands-On Housing with a grant of nearly $390,000. With the program and reduced land prices at West End Village, the homebuyers are getting 1,200 to 1,300 square feet for thousands less than market value. They pay about $126,000 for homes that are appraised at $160,000, meaning they will earn about $34,000 in equity the day they move in, RALF Family Coordinator Heidi Nunnikhoven said.

"When they put the key in the door, they get a big chunk of equity," Bennett said. "So, in essence, their work earns them a hefty paycheck."

"That's why it's such an exciting program," Nunnikhoven said. "They have to work so hard for this, and work other hours in their regular jobs, but they're earning at least $40 an hour in equity, which one day they will get back. Plus they're learning new skills."

While there are no deed restrictions for self-help houses, West End Village property owners must meet resale rules. The home must be sold to a local person, who earns at least 120 percent less than the median income in Steamboat Springs. Generally, that means less than $30,000 for a single income, less than $40,000 for two incomes and so forth.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates that RALF build 24 homes in 24 months. The seven units at West End Village are a start, but RALF must build another 17 units by September 2005 to meet the grant's stipulations.

RALF is looking at Hayden and Oak Creek as possible places for self-help housing.

-- To reach Nick Foster call 871-4204

or e-mail nfoster@steamboatpilot.com

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