By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
Wasilla, Alaska – Last year, Kolten Conan was scrolling through his Facebook page, and he happened upon photos of a house under construction. He already knew a thing or two about building homes: he’s now 21 and when he was just a little boy, he had scampered among laborers at construction sites around his hometown of Wasilla, fetching boards and helping out with seasonal work. He has been mowing lawns since he was nine years old.
The housing photos especially intrigued him because he was looking to own a home someday. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that the photos were of homes built by a community of families helping one another toward affordable home ownership. He contacted the friend who had posted the photos to find out more.
He learned that the house was part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development Mutual Self-Help Housing project, whereby several families work together to provide at least 700 hours of “sweat equity” to construct their homes in exchange for an affordable mortgage. Participating families are generally low-income and unable to qualify for traditional mortgages.
He applied to the Alaska Community Development Corporation (CDC), which received its first Mutual Self-Help Housing grant in 2000. The organization is dedicated to ensuring decent and energy-efficient housing for low- and moderate income Alaskans. The focus is on energy conservation, weatherization, retrofitting, rehabilitation, construction and financing.
In November 2016, Conan and six other families were accepted into the program. Work got underway in February, and the families plan to move into their new homes by February 2018.
Since Alaska CDC started operating the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program in 2001, participating families have built 77 energy-efficient homes that meet Alaska’s most stringent energy efficiency standards, said Patrick Shiflea, executive director of the Alaska CDC.
Under the USDA contract, Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) assists grantees in the western United States to successfully complete single-family housing financed through the program. RCAC has worked with Alaska CDC for nearly 20 years, says Angela Sisco, RCAC rural development specialist who has worked with the agency during the past decade.
“They really stretch themselves to build green beautiful homes,” Sisco says.
In the 2016-2017 winter edition of Rural Matters magazine, Shiflea noted the importance of Mutual Self-Help Housing, particularly in Alaska, where there are numerous challenges.
“One of our most rewarding programs is the USDA Rural Development Section 523 Mutual Self-Help Housing program, which helps families become homeowners in Alaska’s limited and costly housing market,” he wrote. “Building super energy-efficient homes affords self-help homeowners the added benefit of owning a home with greater energy efficiency than that of homes being built by many professional developers.”
The cohort to which Conan belongs was the second to build super-insulated homes, based on building plans from the previous group, Shiflea said during a later interview. In Alaska, with its notoriously long and fierce winters—it can stay below zero degrees for weeks – construction is no easy feat.
“The best way to get around home construction work in the winter is to start construction in the spring,” Shiflea explained. “That is, however, not always possible because of the timing of getting all the program applicants eligible and also the timing of all funding sources. Winter construction is often possible if we can get the foundations in before freeze-up. We are not able to be as efficient with construction in the winter but can work when the weather does allow it and can usually be productive once we get the homes framed up.”
But for Florida native Tanya Chaisan, who lives in Wasilla and who worked alongside Conan, the Alaska winter was only partly discouraging.
“I think the summertime can be worse because it’s harder to get my kids to help out then,” she jokes. “But the winters can definitely be hard when you’re out working on the construction. Not every day is sunny. I keep my rain boots in the trunk of my car. We work rain or shine.”
A single mother to three sons (ages 24, 18 and 16) and with a grandbaby on the way, Chaisan says that her will to build a house stretches back years, to conversations she had with her father who died of cancer in February 2015.
“My dad really wanted us to build a house together,” she recalls. “That’s what kind of pushed me to do it. And I’m single and I’ve learned over the years that if I can understand how something is made and put together, then that’s a great opportunity for me.”
Along with full-time work as a dental assistant, Chaisan cleans offices. Add working on her house to that schedule, and her seven-day weeks are filled. But this is nothing new to her.
“Anything I’ve gotten in life,” she says matter-of-factly, “I’ve had to work really hard for.” She notes that living in Alaska is expensive. Monthly rents can rise beyond $900. A gallon of gas can cost nearly $5.00.
Chaisan is building a modest ranch-style home with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Every son, she says, will have his own room, a goal she is eager to achieve namely because her 24-year-old son suffers from a form of arthritis.
“It’s a crippling disease,” Chaisan says. “When he couldn’t suddenly bend his fingers, and I took him to the doctor, I learned that I had to make sure I had a good enough house that I could actually afford and that would be easy for him to live in.”
Her fellow builder, Jennie Davey, understands well where Chaisan is coming from. Like Chaisan, Davey trained to be a dental assistant, but she is now a stay-at-home mother to her four children ranging in ages from one to 11. Her older children are learning how to work, she says, like Conan did.
“I take them with me when I go to the construction site,” she says. “I don’t have babysitters on the weekends. They pick up trash and do little jobs to help out.”
She describes shoveling up to four feet of snow so that subcontractors could build concrete foundations. She herself worked on siding even though beforehand, she only knew how to use a screwdriver. But like her fellow workers, she says that building the house was imperative to building a better life for herself and her family.
“We were living in a very inefficient house,” Davey says. “It was built in 1983.There were bats in the attic, we had a leaking roof, and there was no insulation in the crawl space. When it’s 30 degrees below outside and you’re living in a 900-square-foot house, you end up paying $300 per month for natural gas. Electricity costs about $135 per month. It’s hard to keep up with the bills sometimes.”
Costs are also a consideration in building the new homes, Shiflea said.
“The extra costs for the upgraded efficiency are running in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $18,000 per home,” he said. “It is a big increase, but it provides long-term savings in energy use for the homeowners. Some of our supplemental funding with self-help housing has encouraged greater efficiency and has covered some of the cost upgrades.”
The greatest challenges, he added, are rising costs for land, development, materials and labor. The long-term commitment needed to build the homes can also be a hardship for many families that are already stretched thin financially and for time.
For Conan, an additional hardship was emotional: his father, age 49, was diagnosed in February with esophageal cancer. Treatment required that he be regularly flown during several months to and from Phoenix, Arizona. Conan found that the construction of his soon-to-be new home grounded him in a way that often only hard physical work can.
“It was pretty tough in the beginning,” he recalled. “I’d go in and hang out with him after work, and then the next day I’d go back to shoveling snow at the site. In this way, all of it taught me to take it one day at a time.”