Self-help housing comes to town

Ground-breaking on six affordable homes on Grandview to begin in spring

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A six-unit Mutual Self-Help Housing project is coming to Oak Creek next spring, thanks to a chance meeting between two affordable-housing advocates with big hopes for the small town in South Routt County.

It began when Brett KenCairn stopped to shop at David Epstein's Oak Creek farmers' market on the way out of town on a camping trip last year. The two men struck up a conversation about affordable housing, West End Village in Steamboat Springs and their mutual conviction that such projects should have alternatives to modular-style construction, KenCairn said.

An idea was planted.

The concept grew with the help of the Regional Affordable Living Foundation.

And this week, the lots for six self-help housing units officially sprouted in Oak Creek.

RALF purchased from Epstein 11 lots along Grandview Avenue -- essentially a full block behind the old kayak factory -- for four single-family homes and one duplex as part of the Mutual Self-Help Housing program. Six Oak Creek families will have the opportunity to build their own affordable homes and some equity using sweat, cooperation and the assistance of a low-interest "construction permanent" loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that covers 100 percent of construction costs.

"That's exactly what Oak Creek needs. There are a lot of unique, self-reliant people here. It's a great match," said KenCairn, who is a RALF board member. "This is one step of many exciting ways the town is growing in a way to make it accessible to working families."

For Epstein, the sale was part of his larger vision for Oak Creek as a town with unique possibilities for heritage tourism and a South Routt commercial center.

"We basically sold these lots to RALF at a discount because we wanted to see this happen," Epstein said. "Oak Creek is slowly evolving. It's ripe for growth in a good way, and it's a unique little town with historic aspects."

Epstein said the lots he sold to RALF are "classic infill already within the town borders that were meant to be built on."

Water, sewer and electric utilities already are installed to the lot lines and the lots have beautiful views, he said.

RALF President Kathi Meyer said the foundation plans to build attractive three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes within the USDA-mandated 1,250-square-foot size limit. Families of six or more, however, can build slightly larger four-bedroom houses, she said.

Mutual Self-Help Housing is a sweat equity project in which each family is required to spend 30 hours per week building its house and helping neighbors with the construction of their houses. No one gets to move in until all the houses are complete.

"It's good incentive to work hard," Meyer said.

Because most of the self-help housing families are amateur builders, RALF supplies one paid professional construction supervisor to help them obtain bids, work on the design and learn how to build. Technical jobs such as concrete, electric and plumbing are farmed to licensed contractors, but the families learn how to drywall, build roofs, paint, install cabinets and put up siding among many other things, she said.

RALF will take care of grading the steep lots, installing infrastructure and selecting the building plans from existing designs offered by several local architects, Meyer said.

From the time the owners break ground on their homes next spring, Meyer estimated construction would take six to nine months.

Once the successful applicants move into their houses, they should have instant equity, Meyer said. She said one self-help house recently was appraised in Steamboat for $55,000 more than the owner invested, right off the bat. Other projects in Gunnison and Montrose have brought from $20,000 to $40,000 in immediate equity to self-help homeowners, she said.

Several people in Oak Creek already have been approved for the USDA loans, Meyer said. People thinking about applying should start getting their income documentation and their credit in order right away, she said.

The loans are limited to families making 80 percent or less of the area's median income. In Routt County, that's a maximum income of $43,150 for two people or $53,900 for a family of four.

"There was far and away more interest from Oak Creek than any other community from the start," KenCairn said. "I commend (Mayor Kathy "Cargo" Rodeman) for her proactive efforts to bring this kind of thing into the Oak Creek community."

RALF conducted a series of informational sessions about self-help housing, but now that the foundation's first affordable- housing project in South Routt County is moving forward, it plans to hold another community outreach program in Oak Creek, Meyer said.

RALF received a grant from the USDA in September 2003 to build 24 self-help housing units within 24 months. The foundation recently purchased land in Hayden for eight single-family homes, which are set to break ground at the end of August.

By the time the Oak Creek and Hayden projects are done, Mutual Self-Help Housing likely will be under the consolidated auspices of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, Meyer said. All of RALF's assets are in the process of being transferred to the housing authority.

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