Affordable building lots may be within housing authority’s reach
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Jul 31, 2014 | 2751 views | 0 0 comments | 55 55 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Chad McDonald works on a duplex at Powerhouse Lane as part of his job as a construction supervisor for the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah. Offers from several landowners could help the organization continue its Mutual Self-Help program. Photo by Rudy Herndon
Chad McDonald works on a duplex at Powerhouse Lane as part of his job as a construction supervisor for the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah. Offers from several landowners could help the organization continue its Mutual Self-Help program. Photo by Rudy Herndon
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Ben Riley wasn’t expecting to hear any good news after he announced last month that the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah (HASU) would be forced to shut down its popular Mutual Self-Help sweat-equity homebuilding program.

But when a handful of landowners learned the program was in jeopardy because the housing authority couldn’t find affordable building lots, possibilities opened up, one phone call at a time.

Seemingly out of nowhere, developers began offering the housing authority’s new executive director the chance to buy lots that were within many applicants’ price range.

Riley said that one developer in particular might have as many as six lots available at prices the housing authority can afford.

“We have some promising lots in town that are affordable, and they’re in a great location,” he said July 15.

The offers of land could mean all the difference for the program, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Rural Development office funds through a two-year grant.

Under the terms of its grant, the housing authority must build seven more homes during its current grant cycle, and the interest from landowners could help make the case that it’s possible to do that.

“We need to show them now that we can finish the homes with the money we have left,” Riley said.

The housing authority administers three other programs that have helped residents from Moab to Monticello and Blanding find affordable housing.

However, Mutual Self-Help grant funding accounts for about two-thirds of the organization’s operating budget, and when HASU couldn’t find enough affordable lots to build the remaining homes, it cut its operating costs by that amount.

As a result, the housing authority laid off most of its already-small staff, including former executive director Robert Muir. It also prepared for the likelihood that the self-help program would cease to exist as soon as HASU construction supervisors and homeowners finished work on a new Powerhouse Lane duplex.

Before going to those extremes, the housing authority reached out to several landowners who expressed interest in working with it. But none of the projects they discussed were shovel-ready at the time, according to Riley.

Riley now says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the HASU can work with USDA Rural Development officials to extend the current grant period.

“If we can get our ducks in a row as far as land and applicants, which is looking promising, they’ll grant us an extension,” Riley said.

That extension, in turn, would give the HASU more time to complete the seven remaining projects.

USDA Rural Development Utah State Director Dave Conine doesn’t sound like he’ll need much convincing to make that happen: He told The Times-Independent that his office will do anything it can to help out.

“We would look at all available options to keep that program alive,” Conine said.

Conine noted that the HASU has gone through the same kinds of challenges that other USDA Rural Development grantees have faced. But he said he’s confident that his office can help it succeed.

He said that the HASU was the first self-help grantee in the state, and he’s happy that developers and landowners came forward with offers that could help the program survive over the long term.

“I’m glad to see that happen,” he said.

Conine suspects that the overall availability of affordable lots is being affected by the growth of higher-end developments in Grand County.

“The second-home market in tourist destination areas typically drives up the land costs, and that’s probably what’s happening in Moab,” Conine said.

According to Riley, that’s exactly what’s happening.

“Unfortunately, the second-home market and the overnight rental market pushes up the price of land,” he said.

Although rising lot prices have been an obstacle to affordable housing developments, Riley said his office hasn’t had any problems finding Moab-area applicants who qualify for Mutual Self-Help.

However, the housing authority is always looking for “very low-income” applicants whose annual incomes fall below 50 percent of the area’s median income, he said. Under the terms of its grant, 40 percent of the self-help participants must meet that criterion.

“That’s always been an issue for us,” he said.

Riley encourages lower-income residents to apply for the program.

“They’d be surprised who could qualify,” he said.

Many people take it for granted that they aren’t eligible, according to Riley.

“We hear it all the time, ‘Oh, I’d love to do this program, but my credit is bad,’” he said.

Even if that’s true, Riley suggested those applicants can still take advantage of credit counseling services that are available through the housing authority.

“If nothing else, they can find out what’s holding them back and work on that,” he said.

In those cases, applicants may be placed in a holding pattern as they try to resolve any credit problems they may have, whether it’s a matter of catching up on car payments or paying down credit card debt.

Conine also encourages very low-income residents not to automatically assume that they won’t qualify for the program.

“This is a very good way for a large number of people to get into the first house of their careers,” he said.

The program is affordable largely because participants help build their own houses. Homeowners typically perform about 65 percent of the work themselves, although construction supervisors handle many of the major chores.

Right now, for instance, HASU construction supervisor Chad McDonald of Blanding is helping full-time river rafting guides build their new duplex on Powerhouse Lane.

McDonald has been working with the housing authority for the past five years, and he’s hopeful the duplex project won’t be his last job for the organization.

“It’s a good program,” McDonald said. “It gives a lot of people the opportunity to own their own homes. It’s the American dream, right?”

For more information about the Mutual Self-Help Program, contact the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah at: 435-259-5891.

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