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Program marks 100 new homes on central peninsula

Families in the Mutual Self-Help Housing program install trusses on a home in Kalifornsky last year.
Courtesy of RurAL CAP
Families in the Mutual Self-Help Housing program install trusses on a home in Kalifornsky last year.

A housing program based in Soldotna is celebrating a big milestone this month.

The Rural Alaska Community Action Program, or RurAL CAP, is building its 100th home on the central Kenai Peninsula — part of its Mutual Self-Help Housing initiative. Families have begun to lay the foundation on that home and eight others this week and next.

Rural Housing Director Mi’shell French said the program will help ease Alaska’s housing shortage.

“In Soldotna, specifically what we’re seeing is a really tight market for first-time homes,” French said. “So one that comes onto the market that fits that price point, it doesn't last very long. And generally, there are bidding wars, which is making things really challenging. So we’re seeing a need for this type of program all over.”

Since families in the self-help program help to build their homes, they save on the cost of construction and borrowing money. The program has been going in Soldotna since 2007.

“And in that time, we have completed construction of 93 single-family homes on the central Kenai Peninsula,” French said. “And just have started construction on another nine in Soldotna.”

The program is funded in part by the USDA Rural Development office. Recently, RurAL CAP received a grant from a new nonprofit housing trust, called Housing Alaskans: A Public-Private Partnership, which formed to help with Alaska's housing shortage.

The trust estimates the state will need over 27,000 new housing units in the next decade to meet Alaska’s needs.

Houses on the market now can be out of reach for many low and very-low income buyers. The average price of a single-family home on the Kenai Peninsula last year was $385,000. That’s up from $280,000 three years ago, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Rents, too, are going up in the borough.

RurAL CAP, through its program, will buy several lots within walking distance of each other, for eight to 10 qualifying families.

Those families contribute most of the labor to build the homes. Each must work 35 hours a week. In exchange, no down payment is required and the mortgages are smaller.

The families build those homes, together, over the course of a year.

“And then nobody gets to move into those homes until they’re completed,” French said.

Chris Blanchard is the project manager for RurAL CAP. On Thursday, he was waiting for some supplies to come in so the builders could get started on eight four-bedroom homes and one three-bedroom.

He said at the beginning of every build, his role is not unlike that of a high school woodshop teacher.

“Because part of our program is we're also teaching a trade,” Blanchard said.

But by the time those families move in, they have the knowledge and experience they need to take care of their homes.

“That’s actually one of the neat parts of the position. I get to see the growth in people,” Blanchard said. “People at the beginning of the build that never knew how to read a tape measure are now framers.”

Throughout the process, families work like a team on each other’s homes – side-by-side, over the course of many months. French said each unit becomes pretty tight-knit.

“We do often hear back from our families after they move in,” Blanchard said.“They check in with us. They share big, important accomplishments with us. Like going back to school and getting new jobs.”

Now, she said the organization is working on setting up more programs beyond the central Kenai Peninsula, to possibly include Seward, Kodiak and Ketchikan.

RurAL CAP is recruiting for its next mutual Self-Help Housing Program, and has its eye on property in Sterling.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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