A Hands-on Approach to Building Affordable Homes in Nebraska

Last August, future homeowners broke ground on seven homes scattered throughout Nebraska City. What makes these prospective homeowners different is that, for the most part, they are building their own houses and the houses of others as well.

The houses are part of a new effort in Nebraska, called Mutual Self-Help, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development office. More than a dozen government and non-profit organizations are also helping.

A number of sweat equity housing efforts have emerged over the past several years, the best known is Habitat for Humanity. These programs allow aspiring homeowners to contribute labor instead of a cash down payment on their house. The rest of the house's cost is paid through a mortgage, which may be guaranteed or at a reduced interest rate.

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Project Foreman, Jim Morgan, positions
the first insulated concrete form block
on prepared cement footings.

Mutual Self-Help has a number of differences from other sweat equity efforts. Local groups and individuals spearhead the housing effort. Future homeowners, not community volunteers, provide most of the construction labor. The homeowners/builders work on each others' houses, rather than concentrating efforts on just their own home. The houses are designed to incorporate sustainable and energy-efficient designs to reduce the overall cost to the homeowners, the community and the environment.

The leader of the Nebraska City effort is Tim Rutledge of Southeast Nebraska Community Action Agency in Humboldt. "A year ago, I was at a state housing conference and heard about Mutual Self-Help houses being built in other states. When I returned to Nebraska City, I asked why can't we do that here?" Rutledge said. Rutledge then asked the same question of Nancy Hoch of the River Country Economic Development Corporation and Cliff Kumm of USDA Rural Development. Together, they felt Nebraska City was an ideal location for the first Mutual Self-Help Homes in Nebraska because the town already had a number of partners that worked well together.

Other members of the coordinating committee include Cecil Steward, Dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Architecture and founder of the Joslyn Castle Institute for Sustainable Communities, Kirk Conger from the Nebraska Energy Office and members of the Nebraska City Affordable Housing Council.

Before a Single Spade of Earth Was Turned

The local housing committee began work in February on four fronts: recruiting future homeowners, firming up finances, selecting house designs and purchasing land.

The future homeowners had to meet income limits (less than $31,450 for a family of four), with sufficient income to qualify for the mortgage. Each participating family had to work about 30 hours per week until the end of the project. Even parents, siblings and other family members contributed to the effort. However, no one could move in until all houses were complete. Prior construction experience was not a factor in selection of the future homeowners.

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Steel bars within insulated concrete forms stabilize
styrofoam and reinforce the concrete walls.

USDA Rural Development provided Southeast Nebraska Community Action with an initial Self-Help grant to manage the program. Additionally, USDA Rural Development is providing the long-term reduced rate mortgages to each individual homeowner for the purchase of a building site, materials and all construction costs. Some additional down payment assistance was provided to each homeowner from the Nebraska City Affordable Housing Council with Nebraska Department of Economic Development funds.

House plans were selected from several catalog sources. Future owners selected their own home plans and even customized the plans to fit their needs. Modifications were also made to optimize energy efficiency and solar opportunities and to utilize standard materials and construction practices on all the houses.

Lots were selected throughout the community, individually or in pairs, with a focus on developing remaining lots in established residential areas of the city. Although construction would have been simpler if the sites had been grouped together, Nebraska City encouraged scattered sites for the homes. This approach allowed the future homeowners to determine where they would live.

Learning Homebuilding Skills

Jim Morgan, a retired building contractor and Nebraska City resident, came out of retirement to supervise construction of the houses. Most of the participants build in the evenings and on weekends, but several work night shifts and come in the mornings. On a typical day, Jim shows up with his construction trailer at 8 or 9 in the morning, gets the workers started, checks on progress and provides training on new techniques. In between, Morgan handles paperwork,orders supplies and prepares for another group of homeowner-builders in 1999.  Most evenings, he has a crew of ten starting at about 5:30 and working until after dark.  Almost everyone works on Saturdays.

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Insulated concrete forms ready for bracing and
concrete pouring.

Morgan's job isn't to build the houses, but to teach the future homeowners how to build them.  He provides enough guidance that the fledgling home builders not only understand what to do, but why it is important.

Although the future homeowners provide most of the labor-except electrical, plumbing and heating/cooling tasks-they have received help along the way.  On Saturdays, Jenifer Watson, University of Nebraska architecture professor, leads a team of graduate students who work and learn alongside the future homeowners. Watson said the course was designed to help students do what they learned in class. Staff members from the Energy Office have spent several days at the sites, learning how the materials they selected perform in the real world of home construction. Several community groups have also helped with some aspects of construction. A concern that too many volunteers would take away from the "self-help" aspect has not proven to be a problem.

Although the chance to purchase their own house is certainly the main reason why people participate in this program, Lisa Delong said she was also grateful for the opportunity to learn construction skills, and for her 6-year old son to learn a positive work ethic. Delong told a group of housing conference attendees that "working together with others to accomplish a project of this magnitude is incredibly satisfying and builds a tremendous sense of community."

Round One Nearing Completion

By winter, the basements were done and main floors were installed. Morgan had hoped to have the main walls and roofs completed in November, so that work could continue inside during the colder months, but not all of the houses reached that point before winter. The late start in August and other delays hampered early efforts.

The estimated construction cost for the houses range from $50,000 to 60,000, but for loan purposes they have been appraised at $90,000 to 100,000. "Sweat equity" has been translated into dollars and cents about $30,000 to $50,000.

Now, Rutledge and others are looking for more Mutual Self-Help homebuilders to start building homes this summer. And just down the road, the Nemaha County Development Alliance and Southeast Nebraska Community Action are looking for ten individuals or families to start building Mutual Self-Help homes in the county. According to Cliff Kumm of USDA Rural Development, the agency is looking for other communities where the Mutual Self-Help program could be considered.

Return to the Winter 1999 Newsletter