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SWEATING IT OUT : 'Sweat Equity' Group Aids Those Willing to Help in Construction of Their Own Homes

August 16, 1992|KATHY A. PRICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Price is a free-lance writer who lives in Summerland. and

SANTA BARBARA — Deni Stevenson acquired her condominium here the old-fashioned way. She built it.

Or at least she helped.

As a member of Homes For People--a nonprofit developer of low-cost housing that was founded in Santa Barbara 12 years ago--Stevenson lowered her condo cost with "sweat equity" points that she earned by sweeping, cleaning and painting during construction. On the job site, she worked for 14 months alongside her future neighbors, which made for an extra-friendly complex.

"There's a lot more closeness," said Stevenson, 51, a college English teacher. "We water each other's plants when we go away. It's 50 times better than moving into a condo complex where you don't know anyone."

But it's the Cape Cod-styled two-bedroom, 1 1/2-bath condo itself that gives Stevenson most pleasure.

"What I'm really jazzed about is my patio," said Stevenson, gesturing toward the brick patio that her friends helped her lay, brightened with flowering potted plants and a colorful umbrella.

Thanks to her own efforts, city-subsidized loans, private contributions and other factors, Stevenson's payments are about $700 a month for her $102,000 condo. She figures that is less than what it would cost her to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

"I get so happy looking at my flowers and fence and umbrella, and knowing I can afford it," Stevenson said. "I'm so grateful I'm not out on the street as a single parent without a lot of money in this town."

Across town, Rebecca and Frederick Russell, both 51, just finished the "sweat" stage, working 30 hours a week between them on their project, as required by Homes for People.

While Rebecca, a ceramic artist and teacher, was throwing scrap lumber into a Dumpster one recent Saturday, her husband, a construction worker, was busy plastering a wall. During the week, much of the work was done by licensed tradespeople, but on weekends the future homeowners did what they could, from cleanup and digging ditches to painting and plastering.

t's kind of exciting to see everyone working together," Rebecca said. "It's kind of a bonding experience. You go in there and work hard. "

But amid the hard work, she enjoyed planning for life in the new home. The couple paid extra to have track lighting in the living room where Rebecca will display her ceramic artworks, which she said "haven't been displayed in years." And she has plans for adding tile to the small patio area outside the living room.

"I do clay, so I'm going to get carried away," she said.

In early August, the couple and their two sons moved into their three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo.

According to Rebecca Russell, her youngest son especially enjoys having a bathtub. To save the required $20,000 down payment, the couple had taken on second and third jobs and the family had been living in a one-bedroom, bathtub-less duplex. Before that, they rented a three-bedroom home for $1,000 a month, but, according to Russell, "I wasn't saving a dime that way."

Now that the family has moved into the $180,000 condo, the payments are about $1,300, including condo fees.

"That's still high," Russell admitted, adding, that $180,000 for a three-bedroom place is pretty low. "It's so hard to buy in, especially in Santa Barbara."

For those willing to sweat for home ownership through Homes for People, family income must be low enough to qualify as low or moderate and yet be high enough to qualify for the low-interest loans. Also, a down payment of about 10% is required.

Once a family or individual decides to buy a home through Homes for People, they begin working on a building project. If the project they want to buy into is in construction, participants work there, earning points that can reduce the cost of their home by as much as 10%. Typically, a single person is required to work 20 hours a week and couples must work 30 hours a week between them.

If participants want to buy into a future project, they work on current projects and earn points, which gives them priority in selection of units in their own project.

Homes for People was born as a reaction to the skyrocketing home prices of the 1980s, when the ordeal of trying to buy a home in pricey Santa Barbara drove many families north to Lompoc or Santa Maria or out of the state altogether.

One young couple, however, thought there must be some way to create affordable housing in the city. Mark and Pattie Lurie, owners of a construction company, "sat around talking about what we could do," said Pattie Lurie. Their ideas developed into Homes for People, whose motto is "people helping people help themselves."

A newspaper ad drew 25 people to the first meeting and a board of directors was created that evening. The group raised the down payment for a $70,000 parcel occupied by a condemned house. The plan was to rehabilitate that house and build another on the same lot.

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