By Sarah Sharp
Passersby strolling through the Drayton Harbor subdivision have no idea how the neighborhood came to be.
No sign proclaims, “Self-built homes,” or “For your information, we spent 35 hours every week for a year erecting this neighborhood from the ground up.”
But each resident shares in the pride. From hammering nails into a skeletal wood frame to stuffing insulation in the walls to fighting the fumes of a freshly painted interior, they’ve experienced it all firsthand. Naturally, every detail feels personal. That rock siding. These four walls. This front door.
Whatcom-Skagit Housing recently formed a new group of “self-help” builders to construct seven additional houses in the neighborhood located off Runge Avenue in southern Blaine.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the private nonprofit corporation helps low-income families build their own homes in rural areas of Skagit and Whatcom counties. The organization is one of seven self-help home builders in Washington state, said executive director Nancy Larsen-Kolakowski.
Members of the group build each other’s houses in a community setting, working at least 35 hours a week for an estimated nine to 12 months. Construction manager Larry Soderberg supervises the builders – many of whom have no prior construction experience – and instructs them through every step of the building process.
“What really impresses me is the diligence these families have,” Larsen-Kolakowski said. “They can see the light at the end of the tunnel: their own home.”
Whatcom-Skagit Housing has built more than 400 houses in Ferndale. The last Ferndale group just completed their homes in June.
“We have been building in Ferndale for the past 10-12 years, so we needed a change!” the organization posted on its Facebook page.
Whatcom-Skagit Housing purchased the Blaine land in 2013, and plans to continue building on the 43 lots for the next two years, Larsen-Kolakowski said.
The idea behind self-help homes took inspiration from barn raising, a common practice in 18th and 19th century rural North America, in which community members banded together to build a barn for a farmer in need, she said. Eventually, they knew the good deed would be repaid when they needed a barn of their own.
Because building groups spend at least 35 hours a week in each other’s company, the result is a well-acquainted community – which in turn engenders a spirit of safety and trust, she said.
But the journey to homeownership is not easy.
Single mothers make up a large demographic of Whatcom-Skagit Housing’s self-help home builders, Larsen-Kolakowski said. These women work full-time jobs on top of taking care of children and building their own homes on evenings and weekends.
“I was a single mother, and I have no idea how they do it,” she said.
Otherwise, there’s not a typical self-help home builder. Men and women of all ages – some retired, some just starting out, some families, some single people – work alongside each other to build a new future. For some, Whatcom-Skagit Housing provides the only means to home ownership, while others utilize the program because it makes more economic sense than purchasing a home elsewhere.
“Everybody has their own success story,” Larsen-Kolakowski said.
Just 18 years old at the time, Tommy Mutchler decided he wanted to build his own house. And by age 24, he accomplished that feat.
“Who do you know that’s freaking 24 and builds their own house?” he said. “People don’t build things anymore. I thought it would be fun, and I like a good challenge.”
Mutchler said he and several of his fellow Ferndale building group members exceeded the required 35 hours per week on construction, sometimes working upwards of 40 to 50 hours.
That time commitment, coupled with working overtime hours at Faithlife, quickly toppled Mutchler’s attempts at a balancing act.
“Balancing came to eliminating,” he said. “I didn’t have a social life. I couldn’t hang out with friends or go camping or see my family or do fun activities. Long story short: You just have to sacrifice an entire year of your life to get this done.”
The sense of accomplishment he now feels makes it all worthwhile, Mutchler said. Still, he asserts the program is not for everyone.
“I definitely recommend it, but only to those who are willing and wanting to put in the work, time and energy,” he said.
To qualify, potential homeowners must show an acceptable credit history, qualify for a USDA loan and not exceed the maximum income level.
Whatcom-Skagit Housing considers the income of a four-person family in Whatcom County low at $55,850 and very low at $34,999. By comparison, a four-person family hits the 2016 federal poverty line at an income of $24,300.
Once construction begins, the owner must contribute at least 50 percent of the construction work, or 17.5 hours per week. Family, friends or volunteer groups can contribute to the other 50 percent as they wish; churches have formed work parties in the past to fill the need.
The cost of land, building supplies and subcontractor work usually equates to around $200,000 but the self-help builders earn about $20,000-25,000 in equity by laboring themselves, Larsen-Kolakowski said. They also face no down payment or closing costs.
Whatcom-Skagit homeowners pay back their mortgage based on monthly installments that match their incomes. Sometimes, the amount turns out to be half as much as rent would cost, she said.
To Larsen-Kolakowski, Whatcom-Skagit Housing is the best example of a government “hand-up” program. As the organization’s website playfully states, “Some assembly required*.”