Hands-on approach to American dream

Housing: A self-help program helps low-income families build their own homes in Charles County.

June 05, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

BRYANS ROAD - Like pioneer homesteaders, the three women sit knee to knee under a late afternoon sun and stitch the fabric of their dreams.

Nurse, cake decorator and child care provider wear leather gloves to protect their hands as they weave heavy-gauge steel wire around iron bars. The metal grids they are fashioning will go into the bare, reddish earth of northern Charles County, where the women are building houses in their free time.

"I'm going to retire soon, and I need a place to come home to," explains Natalie Fenwick, 53, who lives in an apartment in Washington and works at a hospital there. "I figured the only way I'm going to get one is to get out here and make it."

Fenwick, Sonia Butler and June Queen have spent their adult lives renting or sharing houses with relatives. On their modest pay, they could never afford a place of their own in rapidly developing Charles, where the average new home goes for $120,000.

By year's end, though, the three should be moving into Brawners Estates, thanks to their labors and an unusual program that is helping low-income families build their own homes in rural areas.

"We're making the American dream come true for some people, if they're willing to make a personal sacrifice for five days a week," says Dana Jones, director of the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee.

With developers converting croplands into residential cul-de-sacs throughout the region, the nonprofit group is offering opportunities for the working poor to get in on the action.

Through its "mutual self-help housing" program, Tri-County Community Action - which operates in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties - has carved out 111 lots on 32 acres at Brawners Estates, a subdivision virtually indistinguishable from its neighbors. Forty-one houses have been built so far, and 21 more are under way.

The project is underwritten by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides money to help low-income families in rural areas build their own homes. The federal agency subsidizes 33-year mortgages for eligible families, who pay as little as 1 percent interest for the money they borrow.

But this is government-assisted housing with a big difference. As in a barn raising, prospective homeowners help each other build their dwellings, working by turns on each house in the block. The help is assured because each recipient of a mortgage for one of these homes must agree to pitch in with at least 25 hours a week of labor. They also must pledge not to move in until all the homes in their group are finished.

So, three days a week after work, the future homeowners spend three or four hours hammering, sawing, digging - whatever is necessary to get their homes up. Weekends are consumed as well.

"Everything aches," confesses Joe Carter, 50, who lives in Oxon Hill and works as a housekeeper at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. "Every week I get a new pain, I'm not going to jive you."

"It's been backbreaking work," agrees Audrey Robinson, a drug prevention specialist at Charles County's health department. Living with relatives, Robinson jokes that she wants a house so she can nag her daughter to come home from graduate school in Ohio.

"I had the empty-nest syndrome, but I didn't have a nest to call my own," she says, as her neighbors-to-be help put a roof on her two-story, three-bedroom house.

The younger participants don't seem to mind the labor, but the time invested is dear, especially for those with young children. Sherri Proctor, 24, a mail sorter from Temple Hills, says she reluctantly leaves her 6-year-old daughter, Monique, with her grandmother most days so the entire family can eventually escape their apartment.

"Everybody deserves a home," says Proctor.

Similar programs operate on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland, but Tri-County's is the biggest in the state. The group built its first 49-house community in 1971 in St. Mary's County and has since developed more than 400 homes in the three Southern Maryland counties.

Jones, Tri-County's director, says self-help housing "empowers" poor people to better their lives. Despite prolific development in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's, affordable housing for low-income families is in short supply. There is a five-year wait for Section 8 subsidized rental housing in Charles, for instance.

"The average citizen develops wealth in this country through his house," Jones says. "Cars don't do it. Clothes don't do it. Property will."

Participants have $95,000 mortgages to pay off, but their newly finished homes are typically appraised for about $15,000 more. The difference is "sweat equity," an asset the homeowners can leverage to pay for a child's college education or to start a business.

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