'Sweat equity' investment builds houses, community Future neighbors are working together

November 30, 1997|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

For the first six families in a Taneytown self-help housing project, the journey to homeownership began in a clutter of concrete blocks, beams, floor joists and masonry nails.

It wasn't your usual builders' crew that showed up for work at 8 a.m. on a Saturday this month, schlepping through mud that surrounded the foundations of two houses under construction in Freestate Heights, north of Commerce Street. It was a group of men, women and a few children who made up in determination and enthusiasm what they lacked in construction experience.

None of the families has income high enough to make a down payment on a house or qualify for a conventional mortgage. Instead, they're building their homes with "sweat equity," doing much of the construction work to reduce costs.

The program is sponsored by Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland, which plans to build 22 houses in Taneytown. Participants obtain mortgages through USDA-Rural Development (formerly the Farmers Home Administration), with participation by Taneytown Bank and Trust Co.

Interfaith Housing was founded in 1989 by Bishop P. Francis Murphy, western vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, to provide affordable housing for Western Maryland residents. The group has 15 projects representing 340 houses or apartments completed or under construction.

The Taneytown project is Interfaith Housing's first in Carroll County. Representatives have been meeting with Union Bridge residents to discuss a similar project there.

"We have a long, arduous journey ahead," said Mayberry resident Richard Stonesifer as he stood on a scaffold hammering floor joists onto supporting beams.

"It's worth it. It's for my kids. It's for us," said his prospective next-door neighbor, Raquel Lopez of Taneytown.

She and her husband, Miguel Lopez, and their two children had been renting a house for seven years when a neighbor gave them an Interfaith Housing application last Christmas.

"I said, 'We don't qualify.' She said, 'Just fill it out. You're hard-working people. This is my present to you,' " Mrs. Lopez recalled.

To qualify, participants can have incomes no higher than $28,150 a year for a single person, or $40,200 a year for a family of four. The guidelines are set by Rural Development, which provides mortgages with interest rates of up to 7.25 percent.

Participants choose from three floor plans -- a split foyer, a two-story with optional garage or a rancher. Families do the framing, roofing, siding, exterior trim, drywall and finish painting on the houses. Interfaith Housing subcontracts the plumbing and electrical work.

The Lopezes are housekeepers at McDonogh School. They rise at 2 a.m. and work from 4 a.m. until 12: 30 p.m. Then they report to the housing project from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., depending on the availability of a construction supervisor.

Everyone works weekends on the houses, weather permitting. Married couples pledge 30 hours of work a week and single individuals 25 hours a week, in addition to their full-time jobs. Nobody moves in until all the houses are finished.

People could be moving in by May or June "if we don't have bad weather and their emotional stamina holds up," said construction supervisor Greg Wright.

Wright, a United Church of Christ minister with a background in construction, took the job with Interfaith Housing "to find something that made sense in my life," he said. He is one of two construction supervisors for the Taneytown project.

Balancing jobs, construction and family life will be stressful for the families. But many have already done the most difficult part, going to settlement.

"That's more traumatic than looking down the aisle before your wedding," Wright said.

Penny Bouis, a preschool teacher from Westminster, said she has found it difficult being away from her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son while she and her husband, Tim Bouis, a locksmith, work on the houses.

The couple agreed to the project because "it was an opportunity to own our own home," she said.

The group is already forming a sense of community. Participants have been through classes on mortgages, real estate taxes and fundamentals of housing construction. They've also received 40 hours of on-the-job training.

Participants joked and talked as they worked together.

Mrs. Lopez, a native of Puerto Rico, plans to bring a radio to the next session. The project needs Spanish music, she said.

"But I don't know any Spanish," Mrs. Bouis said.

"You will," her neighbor promised.

The self-help housing project has additional openings. Information: Gail Wilson, 410-775-7114.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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