A do-it-yourself neighborhood

Sixty-three-year-old Barb Barasa, a cellist and music teacher, has never built much of anything in her life — but now she's building her house, a smart, two-story "patio home" with a great view, nestled above Ashland's dog park.

The job will take eight months and she's getting to be good friends with her future neighbors, who are working by her side, as they all help each other to build the first eight green-sustainable homes at Rice Park.

It's an affordable housing project of the Rogue Valley Community Development Corporation, helping low-income renters get into a low-interest mortgages backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development — something future owners can do by performing 70 percent of the homebuilding work, about 1,500 hours.

Barasa's loan for her two-bedroom, 1,150-square-foot home is a highly affordable $136,000 and her payments will be just under $700 a month, she says.

"My kids are grown and I never thought I'd buy another home, but I'm doing it to get a solar, eco-friendly home," Barasa said. "I'm totally into it."

Although most of the future owners don't have any experience in housebuilding, construction supervisor Jeff Strickland is teaching them all they need to know.

"It's a learning curve at first," Strickland said. "Then they really pick up speed. They don't have to do anything they're uncomfortable with. Some don't like the power saws or heights and that's fine."

Setting in stringers for stairs, Ian Ousley, 25, noted that he's marrying in March — and he and his wife want a family, so a two-bedroom at Rice Park sounded perfect.

"It's a wonderful experience learning housebuilding. We get to know our neighbors and you see all the emotion come out on the job. It's good exercise too," said Ousley, who quit a retail sales job to build the houses.

"I've been renting a lot. We don't have a lot of equity, so this is a great opportunity to own. We move in in September."

The nonprofit RVCDC is a different kind of animal in the housing market. Its Rice Park project is called "mutual self-help," meaning buyers work for the affordable terms — including no down payment — that they get on their new home.

It makes buyers qualify, but with the spirit of trying to get them into something they can afford "without over-subsidizing them," said executive director John Wheeler.

"It's so they'll be more upwardly mobile and not strapped," he said, referring to the housing bubble of the last decade. To keep the units affordable, they're allowed to be sold with no more than $4,000 annual appreciation added to the price.

To qualify, applicants must earn no more than 80 percent of the median income for this region, or $31,000 for an individual and $45,000 for a four-person family. That pencils out to $15.50 an hour per individual or $22 an hour for the family of four.

Since RVCDC doesn't have to make profit, it can aim at this mission, printed on its Web site, www.roguevalleycdc.org — "to promote viable neighborhoods that enhance healthy, sustainable communities by developing and operating long term affordable housing and community services."

The agency was given the land by its "angel," the city of Ashland, whose ordinances require that part of developments go to affordable housing. Money for the construction was an endowment from the late sisters, Elizabeth and Ann Rice.

The project, which is Earth Advantage Platinum rated, uses green technology in the affordable range — solar hot water heating, Energy Star appliances, heat pumps, passive solar gain from tall, south-facing windows and cement subfloors, energy efficient lighting and plumbing, low or no VOC materials, recycled carpeting, wetlands treated water runoff from roof/parking lots — and they're engineered for future rain catchment and photovoltaic panels, which are more expensive items.

"We love Ashland and this is the only 'in' for owning a house here," said Richard Whitney, 46, an experienced carpenter who passes along teachings to his future neighbors.

His loan of $146,000 over 33 years will cost $645 a month, less than the rent he now pays. The house is valued at $220,000, so his sweat equity gives him a $70,000 stake in the home when they move in.

"I enjoy working with people who've never done this work. I'm totally teaching them everything they want to learn," Whitney said. "We're going to be saving $300 or $400 a month. It's cheaper than renting — and with all the energy-saving features, the utilities will be less."

RVCDC helps arrange loans at 4.5 percent and Rural Development subsidizes that down to the 1 percent to 3 percent range, Wheeler said. Most loans are 33 years, but can go up to 38 if it helps keep housing costs under one-third of income.

Demand for the homes has not been high — and Wheeler thinks it may be that potential buyers are "wary" of promises, don't want to think of themselves as low-income, don't have a nest egg to bring to the table or are just trying to recover from the recent housing bust.

Rice Park is the only mutual self-help home program in the Valley, but, as interest builds, RVCDC hopes to do more of them.

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