June 11, 2015

Building a better future together: celebrating National Homeownership Month | by Tony Hernandez & Terry Brunner

As National Homeownership Month begins, we think of the many rural families who have built their homes with their own hands – and have, quite literally, worked up a sweat as they toiled to build a better future through homeownership.

To help them succeed, USDA and its partners provided the financial tool: an affordable mortgage. This year we are celebrating 50 years of the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, which has helped rural families gain a foothold into the middle class by stepping on that first rung of what President Obama calls a ladder of opportunity.

Tony Hernandez

Tony Hernandez

USDA created this program to provide very low- and low-income families the opportunity to achieve the American Dream of homeownership. We have partnered with more than 100 non-profit Self-Help Housing Organizations  and helped 50,000 rural families realize that dream.

The program provides grants to qualified organizations to help them carry out, neighborhood-based self-help housing construction projects. Participants do their part by contributing “sweat equity’ through their labor.  This program rewards that special kind of person who’s willing to roll up his sleeves, pick up a hammer (or other tool) and essentially do whatever it takes to build a better life for themselves and their family.  For instance, in New Mexico at Zuni Pueblo, families are currently working to build homes through a partnership with USDA’s Self-Help program.

This is not easy work. The families spend many long hours working on their homes. But their hard work reduces construction costs. And they collectively share in the joy of becoming homeowners since no one family can move into their home until ALL homes are ready for occupancy.

Director Terry Brunner

Director Terry Brunner

In 2014, USDA helped about 1,000 families realize approximately $25,000 in equity in their new homes.  In addition, USDA invested more than $19.9 billion in 2014 to help nearly 140,000 rural residents buy homes.

More than any other public program we’ve seen, Mutual Self-Help increases minority homeownership in rural communities. Consistently, over 50 percent of the homes have been built by Native American, Hispanic, Latino, African-American and other people of color. Single mothers, women-headed households, also participate successfully in this program— gaining skills, strength, and confidence and achieving stability for themselves and their children.  Since 2008, 41 percent of self-help homes have been built and bought by women-led households.

Rural America faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to combating poverty in our towns and communities. Too often, rural people and places are hard to reach or otherwise underserved — but USDA Rural Development makes sure they are not forgotten.

Tony Hernandez is the USDA’s Rural Housing Service Administrator and Terry Brunner is the USDA State Director of New Mexico.