By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

Veronica Cabrera
Left to right: Jessica Cabrera, Veronica Cabrera and Tracy Linford take a break at the Neighborhood Nonprofit Housing Services Mutual Self-Help Housing Program build. Cabrera moved into her home in August 2016.

Nibley, Utah – Sometime during the 10 or so months it took Veronica Cabrera to build her family home here in northern Utah, she began to feel a persistent, dull ache all over her left side. She chalked it up to perhaps sleeping poorly, or else the strenuous labor, particularly during the winter months, when she was building her self-help home.

Her doctor, however, had graver news for her: Cabrera was suffering from a rare and chronic neurological disorder called trigemina neuralgia. Some researchers say it is one of the most painful of all human maladies. Moreover, for Cabrera, who is 56 years old and has two adult children who live with her, the news was worsened by an additional diagnosis, multiple sclerosis.

While this would be enough to send most into a tailspin, Cabrera believes the news came at an ideal time, when she was part of a building group with Neighborhood Nonprofit Housing Services in Logan, Utah.

“I had been planning on building a two-story house,” she says. “But with the diagnoses, and in thinking about the future and maybe needing a wheelchair, I was glad I had the information I needed to decide to build a one-story home. I actually couldn’t be happier.”

Back in 2010 after her divorce, Cabrera felt totally on her own. She had owned her home during her marriage but ended up living in three different low-income rental homes during the five years before she learned about the self-help program. Some of the rentals were barely habitable, she recalls. Having a reliable landlord was hit or miss.

“And when my daughter wanted to have a dog, it was hard to tell her we just couldn’t because the place wouldn’t allow it,” she says.

But the self-help program changed all that.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Mutual Self-Help Housing Program has, since its inception in 1965 helped more than 50,000 low- and very low-income families to finance and build their homes. RCAC partners with nonprofit public housing agencies, government housing authorities, and tribally designated housing entities, or self-help grantees, to help the families, who work under the guidance of a construction supervisor. These families contribute 65 percent or more of the work, “sweat equity” in exchange for an affordable mortgage. Self-help grantees manage the construction loans, develop the building site, offer homeownership training and building plans, qualify the borrower for the mortgage, teach families tool safety and management, train on construction skills and market the program in the service area.

Under a USDA contract, RCAC assists grantees in 10 western states, Guam and the Marshall Islands to build single-family financed housing. RCAC coordinates all activities with USDA staff and regularly reports on each grantee’s activity and performance production. Today, RCAC provides technical assistance to 50 active program grantees. .

Cabrera’s daughter, Jessica, is now 22 years old and she helped to build the family’s home. She attends college majoring in education, works part-time in a restaurant and also is a teacher’s aide.

“And one day, I went to the construction site and as I was getting closer, I saw a woman on one of the roofs,” Cabrera recalls. “It took me a minute, but I then recognized it was my daughter. I was so scared for her, but I also have to say that I wasn’t surprised. I later asked her if she was scared and she said no, she wasn’t. But I think, like me, that she probably was, but also like me, she’d never admit that. She’d just go ahead and do what needed to be done.”

Cabrera moved into her home in August 2016.

Some 240 miles south of Nibley, another self-help builder shares Cabrera’s gratitude.

Liberty Shipp in her new self help home.
Liberty Shipp proudly stands in her new Mutual Self-Help Housing Program home built through the Six County Association of Governments in Utah. Next to her rests her Certificate of Completion. She moved into her new home on April 29.

Liberty Shipp, who worked with local self-help grantee Six County Association of Governments in Utah to build her home, had been down on her luck for years. She had been in and out of jail countless times since age 17 until she reached her late 30s. When she learned six years ago that she was pregnant, the writing was on the wall: she needed to clean up her act. She needed to have the wherewithal to provide for her son (Dax). Through Utah’s drug court process, she entered a rehabilitation program and eventually enrolled in classes to become a computer technician.

Things started to settle down with steady work and an income, however, the missing block was decent and affordable housing.

“I had a criminal record, and that makes finding good housing very difficult,” she says, adding that she also didn’t have the financial resources to expunge her felonies. “Even when applying for low-income housing, I never qualified because of my past felonies.”

There is no self-help regulation surrounding prior convictions, says Michele Weaver, RCAC rural development specialist, adding that a prior record is not a protected class for Fair Lending laws.

“Grants may be different,” Weaver says, “and landlords I think can ask the question, so (in Shipp’s case), homeownership definitely would seem to help put that past behind her.”

Shipp first learned of Mutual Self-Help Housing from her niece, who is also a single mother. It seemed challenging, but the labor, says Shipp, didn’t intimidate her.

“I grew up a tomboy,” she says matter-of-factly. “Power tools don’t scare me. I change my own oil and tires.”

But she wasn’t sure whether she would have enough time during her workday to dedicate to the project. As she would find out, her siblings who live close by were happy to pitch in with baby-sitting and taking Dax to daycare and wrestling matches. And, as with all self-help projects, other families in the self-help group would be Shipp’s partners and they would work together to build their homes. She moved into her new home on April 29.

Women like Cabrera and Shipp are increasingly common faces on the self-help building scene, says Olivia Gamboa, the new homes manager at Self-Help Enterprises in Visalia, California, which operates the longest running mutual self-help program in the country. Some have children, others don’t. Some are relieved to be free of bad marriages, others have remained single, but all have found themselves suddenly heads of households. For the three decades she has held her post, Gamboa has observed a steady increase in these women builders.

“I will say the percentage of households run by these women has been increasing,” she says. “Whether she is a single borrower or a borrower with five or six dependents, I see more of them. In a group of, say, 10 or 12 families, about half may well be women as heads of household.” Gamboa adds that she also sees plenty of single men with children.

Between July 2016 and May 2017, Self Help Enterprises has worked with 20 female heads of households. Of those women, nine have completed their homes, eight have homes currently under construction and three started construction in May.

The USDA surveyed participants in the self-help housing program in 2015 and published an overview to help celebrate its 50th anniversary. According to survey respondents, 52 percent of the participants were single-parent households, and as a result, more than 11,000 children now have a safe and decent place to call home. The program targets low- and very low-income families who would otherwise be unable to access safe housing and affordable credit options. Participants receive technical training and perform at least 65 percent of the labor for each other’s homes, often putting in long after-work hours and raising children. It’s an investment in their property and in their neighborhoods.

Photos courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services.