Rattlesnakes Can't Stop New Homes from Rising in the Desert

These kids in Zuni, N.M., have beautiful new houses to live in thanks to their families' more than 250 hours of sweat equity, mortgages from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a housing authority that went the extra mile. Image: Zuni Housing Authority

Building techniques vary around the country. In the New Mexico desert where the Panteah, Nastacio and Sheche families built themselves homes over the past year using sweat equity along with government technical assistance and mortgages, snake wrangling became an unusually important skill when work was stopped to remove a rattlesnake from the foundation being constructed.

The ready-to-move-in snake was just one of many complications facing the three families on the Zuni Pueblo, a small American Indian reservation in gorgeous country south of Gallup, N.M. And while having three more self-help houses in the world may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, the project shows what can happen when borrowers, lenders and housing entities are committed to paving new ground.

The process wasn't easy for the families or the Zuni Housing Authority, which took the lead on making it happen. What do you do when you're ready to stick shovels in the ground and the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells you to stop? (You stop.) What do you do when each of your three borrowers gets laid off from her job within a 30-day period? (You hold your breath until they all find new jobs.) What do you do when there's a gap in financing and you want to start building the units? (You front the money yourself and hope to be repaid when the mortgages are granted.) Removing stray reptiles actually proved to be one of the easier tasks at hand.

Some of it was serendipity. Mike Chavez, executive director of the Zuni Housing Authority, said that two years ago he had no idea the USDA could help him build and finance this kind of housing. But a circle of families helping each other build their homes was something that resonated within the heart of Zuni culture, he said. So when he found out about the USDA Section 523 Mutual Self-Help Assistance Grant, Chavez thought to himself, "This is something we can do."

A $279,000 USDA Section 523 grant was the seed money that provided technical assistance for the project, he told attendees of the New Mexico Housing Summit in Albuquerque. And the homes were financed with USDA Section 502 direct mortgages, at about $90,000 apiece. Three homes have just been completed and the original plan calls for a total of 12.

"It is really challenging" to do this kind of work, Chavez told the meeting, sponsored by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority. For one thing, none of the three families had any construction experience. By the end of the project, they had contributed more than 250 hours of sweat equity.

Cedric Lupee, program coordinator for Zuni Housing Authority, said the houses were three- and four-bedroom units ranging from 1,283 to 1,500 square feet. All three of the borrowers were female single parents, and all of them were housing authority rental clients quite motivated to improving their living conditions.

The houses were built on available vacant lots in Zuni's Bluebird subdivision, Lupee said. An eagerness to get underway was checked when the USDA told the housing authority they had to finalize lease documents and obtain title search reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs first. So they put their shovels away temporarily.

The individual mortgages under USDA Section 502 were also supposed to be closed before commencing construction, and they hadn't. So Zuni fronted the construction money, something that might be as rare in most building projects around the country as rattlesnake removal is.

The families didn't do all the work on the houses, Lupee reported. Workers from the housing authority did the plumbing and electrical work, and there were also volunteers on the project. Construction started last May, and completed in June of this year. Each of the three families provided sweat equity on all three of the projects.

In addition, the families opened Individual Development Accounts being offered through Albuquerque-based nonprofit Prosperity Works, and the money built up through contributions and matching funds is being used to help the families make some of their initial mortgage payments.

The families and the housing authority learned as they went, and it took them a good bit of time and trouble to get the project done. But they did, finally. The last picture in this story shows the dedication of the three neat and trim homes in the scenic New Mexico desert in June, as the beaming families of Kay Panteah, Reyanna Nastacio and Martha Sheche stand behind big unfurled American flags, gifts from the USDA. Even better to report, the families got keys to their new homes in July.

Building three houses in the desert may hardly make a dent in the housing need at Zuni Pueblo. But for the Panteah, Nastacio and Sheche families, their housing needs have been taken care of 100%. If you don't get a warm feeling from seeing three little kids peering out over an American flag they can use to fly over their new home, you may be in the wrong business. Because this is what it's all about.

Mark Fogarty, Editor at Large of National Mortgage News, brings more than 30 years of sector experience to his analyses of the mortgage market.

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