Program gives people willing to work chance to have a house

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James Wilson is a Xango employee by day but by a roofer by night. He currently lives with his wife and two children at his mother-in-law’s house, but he is looking forward to moving into a home in Payson. His time after work is spent constructing the house through the Rural Housing Development Program.

The program, with low interest loans and no down payments, runs off sweat equity and is income restricted. Since its beginning in 1999, it has built 1,100 homes for Utah families, only one of which has ever defaulted – meaning the percent of defaulted homes in the program is less than .5 percent, according to Brad Bishop, executive director of the Utah County office.

“It’s so successful because people gain skills and they can fall back on their building skills to take care of the home,” Bishop said. “If we were to give the homes away, they would not be as well maintained.”

Months ago, Russell Wesley and his wife, with seven years of marriage behind them and three young children, wanted to buy a home. But looming down payments and visits to the bank left them with little hope of getting a mortgage for a home they wanted.

“We were frustrated because we could only qualify for only a small mortgage,” Wesley said. “We looked, but we couldn’t find anything for such a small amount.”

Now their wish, which seemed unattainable a few months ago, is about to become a reality as the Wesleys anticipate the move into their first home. Through the Rural Housing Development Corporation, they look forward to moving into their four-bedroom home in Payson in January.

The program, run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has built about 300 homes in Wasatch and Utah Counties in the past 11 years, averaging about 35 homes a year. According to Janice Kocher, housing program director for the USDA Utah office, the U.S. government provides a grant to non-profit grantees that then hire construction supervisors with a contractor’s license. The supervisors then teach the groups, made up of about eight to 10 families involved in the program, how to build their homes. The majority of families that make within the income restrictions are accepted for the program, Bishop said.

Wilson described the process the families go through together as each family is required to put in at least 35 hours a week between themselves and willing friends and family members.

“I see husbands and wives working together and neighbors working together,” Wilson said. “It’s a really great bonding experience. Even before we start building we go to meetings for months, so it’s a long period before you move in that you’re working with your neighbors. We are all really close. ”

A construction supervisor oversees the group, which is split into three different teams, including floors, roof and walls, for efficiency in building the homes. None of the families move in until all the homes are completed, besides the unfinished basements, which are left for the families to complete on their own.  Typically it takes about six to nine months for a group to build their homes, Wilson said. The fastest he knew of a group completing was four and a half months.

No construction experience is necessary, only dedication and a strong work ethic. Christian Wagner, who is building a home in Payson through the program, said each family makes sacrifices to build the homes.

“The program is for anyone who wants to get into a home and doesn’t mind living in rural areas and hard work,” Wagner said.

Families vary widely, but most all assist with the construction. The program is now building in nine cities in Utah.

“Our best roofers have been our mothers,” Bishop said in a video on the program’s website.

Those involved in the program gain valuable construction experience that helps them maintain their homes.

“The homes are taken care of because they know what all the components are of the construction and then they know how to replace and fix them if they need to,” Kocher said.

The program offers 18 house plans to choose from, all of which include about a 1,300 square feet main level, a two-car garage and unfinished basement. The homes are also energy efficient, making families’ monthly energy payments small. Monthly mortgage payments are determined by a family’s circumstances.

“They’re not going to make your payments more than you can afford,” Wesley said. “You can get anywhere from one percent interest rates to five to six percent.”

The economy also benefits from this program, Kocher said, as the non-profit grantees buy supplies from locals.

“Without the program we would lose approximately 512 jobs in rural Utah,” Kocher said. “It would have a huge economic devastation without it. When the economy went bad, a lot of local plumbers, framers, electricians were able to keep their jobs because of this program.”

Wesley said he is excited to own his first home, especially under such favorable circumstances. He likes the area, the home and the financing is manageable. And he is learning construction skills he can use forever. Bishop said one of the most valuable aspects of the program is the confidence the families gain from building the homes, and not just taking freely from the government.

“I wish all government programs were like this,” Bishop said. “The homes aren’t just given away. They have to work for them and they have to pay back funds loaned to them. This is not just a handout. You teach them how to fish.”

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