Opening the door to a new home

Published on Thu, Mar 8, 2001 by Soren Velice

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Opening the door to a new home

By Soren Velice

Whatcom Self Help Homes (SHH) wants 16 families to help themselves into new homes near Birch Bay.

The organization, funded through a two-year grant from the Rural Development branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently purchased 16 lots off Lincoln Road; executive director Nancy Larsen-Kolakowski came to Blaine’s family service center last Wednesday to solicit applications for 11 remaining spots.

Applicants must make 80 percent or less of Whatcom County’s median income to join the group. For a family of four, that’s between $16,850 and $38,550 per year; they also must have good credit for the previous three years to qualify. “You definitely need to make a project of cleaning up your credit report,” Larsen-Kolakowski said. Unlike Habitat for Humanity homes, SHH participants pay off a USDA 502 mortgage, with interest subsidized according to income.

The program also requires a commitment to 35 hours a week building the houses. “You’ll have no social life for 10 months,” Larsen-Kolakowski said. “These houses are what you’re going to be doing every free minute.” The hours aren’t spent only on the participant’s home, but rather spread equally over the seven to nine homes in the work group, she said. “The family or individual has to put in half the time – 17 1/2 hours,” Larsen-Kolakowski said. “Whoever’s helping - family or friends – can do the rest; if they’re going to help, though, they have to work on everybody else’s house too, just like you.”

She said childcare is one of the biggest hurdles for families in SHH; sometimes the families band together to minimize the impact on their ability to work the required hours. “I’ve heard of it in the program where one family will watch three or four families’ children and rotate,” she said. “It’s pretty much up to the families.”

Larsen-Kolakowski said the process of families building the houses, often while watching one another’s kids, can help build strong neighborhoods. “Instead of living with strangers, their immediate neighborhood is people they’ve got to know over 10 to 12 months,” she said. “It helps with neighborhood safety, and sometimes builds friendships when the people get to know each other.”

SHH has nine available floorplans – two five-bedroom houses, two four-bedroom plans and five three-bedroom homes. SHH determines how many bedrooms applicants get. Once the work group comes together, a construction supervisor leads a safety meeting, and the different floor plans in each category are drawn out of a hat to avoid a cookie-cutter look in the neighborhood; families can trade floor plans in their category if they wish.

Throughout the building process, the construction supervisor leads weekly meetings to teach workers how to perform each phase of construction; he monitors progress and quality by inspecting families’ work as they go. Electrical, plumbing and drywall work is done by subcontractors to ensure safety and durability.

Interested families should contact Larsen-Kolakowski at 398-0223 or pick up an application at the family service center.

For families that don’t qualify or cannot make the time commitment, the Whatcom County Housing Authority has public housing available in Blaine, Bellingham and Ferndale. Waiting lists can run anywhere from six months to two years.

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