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Hard Work and USDA Mortgages Build Three Homes in the Desert

Three families on Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico have brand new houses, thanks to their own hard work, financing and local housing authority.
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Three families on Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico have brand new houses, thanks to their own hard work, financing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a local housing authority willing to do whatever it took to get the three houses built.

None of the process was 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.)

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 this kind of housing. But a circle of families helping each other build their houses was something that resonated with the heart of Zuni culture, he said. So when he found out about USDA’s 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 have just been completed and the original plan calls for a total of 12.

“It is really challenging” to do this kind of work, he 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.

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Cedric Lupee, program coordinator for Zuni Housing Authority, said the units 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 sited on available vacant lots in Zuni’s Bluebird subdivision, Lupee said. An eagerness to get underway was checked when 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 for the time being.

The individual mortgages under 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 the removal one day of a rattlesnake from one of the foundations.

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 dedication of the three homes in the New Mexico desert in June saw the beaming families of Kay Panteah, Reyanna Nastacio and Martha Sheche standing behind big unfurled American flags, gifts from the USDA (those are the agency colors, after all). Not long after the dedication, the families got keys to their new homes last month.