Building Blocks Program Puts Families In Homes

Participants are building their own houses -- and those of their neighbors.

By Steven Hopkins
Photo by Ben Fredman
Post Register
Printed on Tuesday, November 14, 2006

BLACKFOOT -- Few people these days can say they built their own homes, and even fewer can say they bBy Ben Fredmanuilt all of their neighbors' homes, too.

Yet Cori Allen can.

Since February, Allen, a nursing student at Idaho State University and a father of four, has spent his spare time working in a mutual self-help housing program. Run by Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership, the program brings together groups of prospective homeowners to build each other's houses. It's been helping young, growing families get out of apartments and into their own homes since 1997.

Participants pay no down payments and make no payments on their loans until the houses are completed and everyone has moved in. EICAP has overseen the construction of 101 houses.

That's given 242 children homes with backyards, which is significant, said Dixie Campbell, the partnership's housing department director.

"Anytime you're taking a family out of a renter's situation into a home, the children are better off," she said.

The houses take a year to complete, and participants build about 65 percent of the structures. Intricate jobs such as plumbing, electrical, concrete and excavation are contracted out to professionals, but participants are responsible for framing, hanging Sheetrock, laying tile, putting on siding, shingling the roof and more -- usually after leaving their day jobs.

They toil in cold weather, late at night, and most of the participants, such as Allen, have little or no training in construction.

"At times, we don't have a clue what we're doing until we start doing it," Allen said.

Funding for the program comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development division.

EICAP began when representatives from the Department of Agriculture approached Campbell in 1996 because there weren't any self-help housing programs in Idaho. At that time, she wrote the initial grant providing the administrative funds needed to organize the groups. The first houses were finished in 1997.

USDA funds three other self-help housing programs in Idaho, but EICAP's is the only one with a presence in eastern Idaho. (Habitat for Humanity maintains a presence here, but it's not federally funded.)

To enroll in EICAP's program, applicants must have good enough credit to qualify for a loan and make less than $40,800 a year.

EICAP and USDA workers interview applicants to verify they qualify and that they can commit 30 hours a week, including eight hours on Saturdays, to build. Volunteers can contribute up to 10 of those hours each week. Family members and friends usually volunteer, but inmates from Idaho Falls' work release program and construction workers donate labor as well.

On Saturdays, builders have classes. They might learn how to safely use a saw or read a tape measure correctly. They must follow directions to build a sawhorse before they are allowed to do any work on their houses. So far, no one's been hurt on the job.

Rose Whitman, who moved into her newly built house in August, worked almost 1,600 hours over 13 months on the 10 homes in her group.

"It was a lot of work, but looking back, it was worth it," she said.

It's also been worth it for foreman Robert Howe, who's overseen construction of 26 houses in two years. The program is a great opportunity for young families, Howe said, adding that he takes pride in giving back to the community.

"This program is about helping the kids get started in the first home and on to bigger and better things," Howe said.

That's one of the reasons Allen applied for the program, despite the long hours. Thursday night after a day of classes, for example, he was installing insulation in his soon-to-be living room.

Without the program, though, Allen said his young family would still be renting and trying to scrounge money for a down payment on a house of their own.

"I wouldn't be able to get into a house for two years, until I finished school," he said.

Tool time

To apply for EICAP's Mutual Self-Help Housing program, call 522-5391 or visit www.eicap.org.

Eastern Idahoans who do not qualify for EICAP's program have access to Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit organization that helps families build their own houses. For more information about Habitat for Humanity's housing program, call 528-0298 or visit www.idahofallshabitat.org.