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Building A Dream

Self-help housing project launches in Odell

A group of a dozen men and women huddled against the morning chill at the corner of Cedar Drive and Maple Road in Odell on Saturday. Contractor Jim Mederios rattled off a list of the day’s projects.

“We’re going to break into three different groups,” he said. “Some people will put wood on walls. Some people will put floor joists in.” Cedar Drive and Maple Road don’t really go anywhere. Yet. The shiny new signs sit atop a stop sign that, someday, will command drivers to stop here. But for now, the roads front a smattering of concrete foundations rising from the frozen mud and dead-end in piles of earth and heavy equipment.

The group of Hispanics listening to Mederios is working steadily, week by week, to change that. They’re not contractors. Few of them had ever thought about floor joists before, much less considered putting them into a house themselves. But that was before. Now, this group — which includes members of eight families — is working on an unprecedented project spearheaded by Hood River’s Housing for People, Inc. (HOPE).

The so called self-help housing project has been years in the making. Last year, the project became a reality when HOPE procured a 25-lot subdivision north of Odell and the organization began seeking applicants for the first eight homes. To qualify, families had to meet certain requirements, including income and credit guidelines. They also had to agree to work 30 hours a week on the project. And there was one other condition: each family would help build all of the homes, moving into their home only after all eight were complete.

Families involved in the project pay none of the construction costs. Their “sweat equity” serves as their downpayment, and they begin paying their mortgage after they move in. HOPE helped them procure low-interest loans and their mortgage payments will vary depending on their income.

“This is for responsible, motivated people who just happen to be making less than average (income),” said HOPE’s Denise Endow, program manager for the self-help project.

The initial applicant pool of about 100 eligible families shrank as many decided they didn’t have the time or desire to do so much work. This group of eight “really jelled” last summer, according to Endow.

Only two of the families — which vary from couples to large extended families — knew each other prior to last summer. The rest got acquainted during a series of meetings last summer and fall.

“They all know they’ve qualified for the same program,” Endow said. “They also know they’re out here working on the project. They’re learning to trust each other.”

Endow and Jim Mederios, HOPE’s construction supervisor, continually emphasize that trust to the group.

“Remember we talked about being here on time for the meetings,” Endow said to the group on Saturday morning. Anyone who is late, she added, will not get to count the whole first hour toward their family’s 30 hour work week. Anyone who is late is also getting off a little easier, she implied, undermining the group’s collective effort. One member of the group — Meli Santillan, who will move into one of the homes with her husband — translated Endow’s words into Spanish.

“Remember, this group stays together because you need each other,” Endow said.

After the morning meeting, everyone broke off into groups of four. They fastened on their tool belts and headed to one of the foundations to begin work. Mederios spent time with each group, getting them started on the task at hand and providing direction.

“A project like this is always dependent on the people in it,” Mederios said. “This is a great group. They’re enthusiastic. They’re hard-working. The only problem I have is keeping up with them.” Mederios is at the site most of the week, moving the project forward. Some of the families work a few hours during the week, but most have free time for it only on weekends. Each family’s required 30 hours can be completed by any one or several of the family members. The group elected a time-keeper, and Endow and Mederios monitor the records.

Subcontractors will do all the specialized labor on the homes, like plumbing and electrical, according to Endow. But the families will be kept busy until the homes are complete around the end of the year.

Meli Santillan and her husband spent Saturday morning working on one home’s foundation, getting it ready for the floor joists. It wasn’t their home, she explained.

“We’ve picked one out over there,” she said, pointing down the road. Santillan, who works for the Oregon Child Development Coalition, is realistic about the project.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s going to be a long year.” But Santillan and her husband have lived for years in a “tiny little house.” They’re already crowded in it with one child, and are trying to have another.

“It will be worth it,” she said. Santillan jokes about her neighbors-to-be working alongside her.

“We didn’t know each other before,” she said. “But we will know each other.”

And that’s one of the goals of the project.

“It’s building more than just homes,” Endow said. “It’s building community.

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