Self Help Enterprises, A Brief Review

Bob Marshall

Self-Help Enterprises(SHE) is based on a great and simple concept: families working together to build their own homes can do so with a bit of technical and human support.

The Statement of Purpose is stated simply: "The purpose of Self-Help enterprises is to assist low-income families of the San Joaquin Valley to improve their living conditions."

In addition to new home construction, over the years home rehabilitation, home repairs and weatherization, multi-family rental units(largely for farmworkers), new and improved sewer and water systems for rural communities have been added to the scope of work.

Having worked for 14 years in a self-help housing program in Philadelphia that was cosponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), my family and I came to Visalia, California in 1966 to work for SHE, which was an outgrowth of an AFSC program here. Tragically, the day we arrived, Howard Washburn, the Director of SHE, along with his wife and two of their four daughters, were killed in an auto accident.Within three months, I was asked to be Executive Director, the position I held for 23 years until retirement.

Over the years, now 33 since inception, the program has grown and flourished and continues to do so under the able leadership of Peter Carey, now Executive Director, who joined SHE in 1974 as a VISTA volunteer.

As of December 31, 1997, the following has been accomplished.

  Overall Stanislaus
New Homes Completed 4,487 539
Home Rehabilitated 4,301 544
Homes Weatherized 36,272 1,390
Rental Housing Units Built l,048 48
Water &Wastewater Service to Families 17,268 961

Note:  Overall = 7 Counties from Kern to Stanislaus

The success of the New Homes Program is, I believe, due to several factors: a tremendous need for decent housing by poor families in the Valley; many eager families willing to work hard to achieve their goal; available land at reasonable cost; available financial resources; and a competent, dedicated staff.

However, not all was smooth sailing. Over the years, especially in the early years, there were some Farmers Home Administration(FmHA) County Supervisors and staff at higher levels who opposed our program and made life very difficult. FmHA(now Rural Development) has been the primary lending agency to families. If the County Supervisor who approved loans didn’t like the program philosophically, he or she could make the loan approval process drag on endlessly and disapprove some applications our staff thought should be approved.

By the 1980’s, an appeal process was established that made loan denial less capricious. On the other hand, some of our staff in the early years probably pushed for approval of some families who wouldn’t be successful homeowners. As time went by, our staff became more experienced in loan packaging and in identifying families who most likely would be successful Homeowners.

One problem that unfairly stopped a number of families from obtaining loans was hospital liens. In early years, when poor families had members hospitalized and there was no source to pay the bill, the hospital placed a lien against the family. This was often unknown to the family or forgotten by them.When they applied for a mortgage, it showed on their record and FmHA would deny the loan until the lien could be settled. Most families could not do this on their own. One of our Board members, Mary Diran, a State health administrator, took this problem on a personal crusade. She was able to have some hospitals subordinate the lien for some families, thus enabling them to get a mortgage. Since this only worked for a small number, SHE sought and obtained a special federal grant source to help other families with this and other similar financial problems. By giving them a direct grant, we were able to help about 150 families in this way to obtain FmHA loan approval that might otherwise have been rejected.

Another continuing hurdle in some cities or communities is the NIMBY phenomenon.

That is the program is okay, but "not in my back yard."

In Farmersville in 1960s, we had a very successful subdivision of about 30 homes built in a former walnut grove. Then when we purchased eight lots and wanted to build on the other side of town near the mayor’s home, we received a delegation of people in our office who were opposed to our building there. Fortunately, in that case, we already had control of the land, so we could be courteous to these people, listen to their concerns and opposition, thank them for coming and then proceed to build. Of course, the homes were as nice as any in that area.

There were other cases where we were stopped from proceeding. Riverdale, in Fresno County, was one, and Waterford, in Stanislaus County, for a time was another. When the Anglo mayor of Waterford was replaced by an Hispanic, the attitude toward SHE become more positive and we were able to build.

Over the years, several studies were made of families living in Self-Help homes. The one which gave us as much support as any was one done by Kay Mata, a graduate student at San Francisco State University in 1986. She was given access to FmHA files in the various offices and made a study of 710 families who build self-help homes with SHE 10 to 20 years earlier. Some of her findings were:

1.Only two percent had been sold at foreclosure.

2.Eighty-six percent were still living in their homes.

3.Of those still in their homes, 6.6 percent were delinquent in loan payments. At that time, this compared with a California FMHA average delinquent rate of 12 percent.

The SHE program is in good hands, is well respected and is accomplishing a great deal. This information, along with his interaction with our staff and knowledge of the program, helped make Jim Rathbone, who for a number of years was FmHA housing Chief in the California State Office, a strong supporter. Jim saw the good that the self-help program accomplished, not only SHE, but also several other California programs that were modeled after SHE. This support by a key FmHA staff member helped to make the working relationship with our staff a positive one and make our work go more smoothly.

One more successful component that I am very proud of, the Washburn Fund. Howard Washburn, the first Executive Director of SHE, was a fine man who got the program off to a good start. About 15 years ago, in his memory we began this fund with private fund raising. It now has over a million dollars and has helped 328 families in their home building.

When using any mortgage source other than FmHA, it is necessary to obtain a separate construction loan for the family. For about the last 15 years, SHE has used the California Housing Finance Agency as a mortgage source for a number of homes. The Washburn Fund serves as a three-percent interest construction loan source for these and some other families. The loan is always repaid when the home is finished and the permanent mortgage is made. This is a simple "in house" process that saves the families time and money and makes home ownership possible for some who might otherwise not achieve it.

I would like to pay tribute to two people who were vital in the creation of SHE. Bard McAllister, staff director of the AFSC Farm Labor Program in Tulare County, started the self-help housing program in Goshen, then sought to expand it with Anti-Poverty Funds. The other was Everett Krackov, the Tulare County Community Action Agency Director obtained the first Office of Economic Opportunity OEO grant to operate SHE. I also want to pay tribute to the many members of the SHE Board of Directors over the years. The Board was always composed of people from a variety of backgrounds, differing political persuasions, ethnic diversity, and included participants in the program. Sam Tyson was an early Board member as was State Senator Howard Way. The Board gave and continues to give direction and support to the staff. I am proud to have played a part in it.

1. Overall 7 Counties from Kern to Stanislaus

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from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center and the Stanislaus Safe Energy Committee

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