Jessica and Jason Smith used to watch home improvement shows in which old and deteriorating houses are completely renovated. They never thought they’d be the ones giving a neglected home new life—until now. While building their dream of homeownership, they are quite literally helping revitalize a neighborhood.
Last week in honor of National Homeownership Month, I joined U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici, local nonprofit Community Action Team (CAT), and community leaders to meet the Smiths at their work-in-progress in St. Helens, Oregon. Jessica and Jason participate in CAT’s Self-help Acquisition Rehabilitation Program (SHARP) funded with support from USDA Rural Development. The effort allows families to use their own sweat equity as down payment on a home and provides an affordable USDA mortgage for the balance. As the local partner, CAT receives USDA Mutual Self-help Housing grant funds to qualify families, identify home sites, and coordinate professional construction assistance.
Before the Smiths took it on in April, the house was falling into disrepair and vandalism. “Everyone in the neighborhood knows the house and thanks us for turning it,” Jessica said.
Jessica and Jason Smith have rented a small apartment for the past five years. With the arrival of their second child, the apartment is smaller than ever. They are ready for more space, a yard, and a single family home in a neighborhood setting. On top of their full-time jobs—Jessica is a veterinary technician and Jason works at a service station—the Smiths put in 30 hours a week renovating their new single family home. They are doing everything from roofing and siding to the ventilation system and plumbing. Community Action Team estimates the full rehab project would cost $80,000 if done by a private contractor.
While most USDA Mutual Self-help Housing programs across the nation focus on new construction, CAT wanted to address issues with homes that were foreclosed and abandoned during the recent housing crisis. In St. Helens, like many rural small towns, the housing recovery is taking longer than in surrounding urban areas. Lingering impacts include the blight that follows when multiple vacant homes in a neighborhood are left to deteriorate and attract nuisances like vandals and squatters that lower everyone’s property values. Additionally, as CAT executive director Jim Tierney explains, many single family homes have been sitting empty while rental housing has become scarce. “We’ve seen a less than one-percent vacancy rate in St. Helens for apartments and a three- to four-year wait for low-income rental units.”
Helping working families who are financially ready transition into homeownership, like the Smiths, not only breathes new life into neighborhoods, but also frees up scarce rental housing. At the same time, the first-time homebuyers are building equity and personal assets through homeownership and home improvements.
Jessica and Jason expect to complete renovations and move in later this summer. The cozy home has three bedrooms and a playroom for five-year-old Dereck and baby Harper. “Our son asks for a dog every year for Christmas—not a stuffed dog, but a real one,” Jessica said. “Now, we can get one!”
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This initiative is great. I would love to organized something in the Barrio I have my house. There are so many houses around that are abandoned and too many people under poverty that the area is becoming scary eventhough the Barrio is in front of the ocean. It is a beautiful place but can be much better.