Each member of MHO’s current Self-Help Homeownership cohort has traveled a different path to owning a home. This group of six households connected in the Spring of 2022 when they started constructing their new homes in Spring Garden, one of MHO’s latest homeownership developments in the Enka-Candler community.
Self-Helpers build their way into homeownership through hard work and financial tools that serve income-limited, first-time homebuyers. Homes are financed with low-interest USDA mortgages and “sweat equity” construction hours, reducing the overall purchase cost. Construction takes an average of nine months to one year. The program is labor-intensive but immensely rewarding, producing 6 to 12 new affordable homes each year. What’s unique about MHO’s program is that Self-Helpers build their homes together, which means neighbors are building a new community from the ground up. No one moves in until all the homes in their cohort are complete.
On a bluebird day in April, MHO sat down with Vic and Kassandra, two members of the current cohort, to learn more about their journeys to homeownership. During our visit, Vic and Kassandra had the same weary optimism—a tangible swirl of excitement and exhaustion that people carry near the end of an intense project. They had been building their homes together for almost a year and were looking forward to being finished very soon.
Vic had on a pair of denim overalls he’d bought to wear on his building days. Dark blue, stiff, and sturdy when new, these overalls are now soft and faded, the knees a silent testament to the hundreds of hours Vic has worked to bring his and his neighbors’ homes from a blueprint into reality. For Vic, owning his own home is another milestone on his path to healing.
For nearly a decade, Vic has been building his way back to a life he feels is worth living: overcoming alcoholism, mending fractured relationships, and growing his connection with God. One of seven siblings, Vic shared that he grew up in an abusive home. He compares that early trauma to a wound that leaves lifelong scars. He enlisted in the army, got married, divorced and married again, and had children, but eventually found himself alone and homeless. Vic admits he didn’t yet have the skills to address his childhood trauma, so he self-medicated with alcohol. He was depressed and contemplated suicide. In his mid-50’s, Vic said he experienced an epiphany.
“I woke up, and it was just as clear as a bell,” he explained. “I said a quick prayer, ‘Lord, forgive me for being unforgiving, and I want to release all that.’ And that was when I began to heal.”
Vic’s healing journey started ten years ago when he came to Asheville to rehabilitate his alcohol dependence at the Veterans Administration (VA) healthcare system that serves the region. Through his care at the VA, Vic stabilized his health, secured housing, and explored helpful programs in the community. He connected to MHO’s Self-Help Program through homeownership resources shared by the Asheville Housing Authority. As we stood on his new front porch with a postcard-worthy Blue Ridge mountain view, Vic, now 65, shared that homeownership represents reaching a new level of well-being.
His eyes crinkled in a smile and he gestured with an open hand to his surroundings. “I’m so surprised that this is low-income housing,” he said.
He shared that he feels satisfied knowing that his and his neighbors’ homes are built with quality materials and that the neighborhood offers a sense of quiet peace. When asked what he’s looking forward to most about his new home, he said his granddaughters, aged 10 and 15, are planning a visit for the first time since he moved to Asheville.
Kassandra’s house is next door to Vic’s. A single mom and entrepreneur, Kassandra has crafted her career around her passion for helping others heal. She moved to Asheville about 12 years ago, trained in rehabilitative massage and therapeutic bodywork and in 2021, she opened her own practice. Her work is expanding to include herbalism to support the physical, emotional, and spiritual health she helps her clients achieve. Kassandra shared that building her home through the Self-Help Program has transformed her life and that she’s witnessed a transformation in her fellow Self-Helpers, too.
As we sat on the porch of her nearly finished new home, she sipped a brew of foraged stinging nettles, a plant long used to ease inflammation and joint pain. This helps her body recover during her building days. In addition to running a small business and being a full-time single mom, Kassandra shares that the work to build her and her neighbors’ homes has been a grueling commitment of both time and physical labor.
“It's not easy at all,” she admitted. “Almost every day, I'm like, ‘What did I do?’ But overall, it's the outcome. Having my own home is going to be really beautiful.”
Kassandra’s son Aiden, 11, is one of the biggest motivators in her journey to achieve homeownership. But Kassandra had trouble securing the financing she needed to buy a home. She knows her experience isn’t unique.
“Here in western North Carolina, I would say the normal working-class person is unable to afford to live,” she said. “I was trying to qualify for a mortgage, but it was nearly impossible as a single, self-employed woman. I was surprised I was able to qualify with MHO. It was really enlivening for me to know that homeownership was a possibility. This program seemed to come at just the right time.”
Kassandra shared that part of the transformation she and fellow self-helpers have undergone is that they have learned not only how to build homes but how to build them together.
“Working with different personalities, different ethnicities, different cultures... we all come from different backgrounds and have our ways of thinking and doing things,” she explained. “That can be a bit of a challenge. From the ground up, I feel like we all transformed alongside our homes in this process from novices to intermediates to now knowing, ‘We built this.’"
For Kassandra, owning her home offers a path to greater financial and personal empowerment.
“Homeownership for me looks like a sense of freedom for myself and my son,” she said. “He is gaining from this process, too. This is one of my biggest investments. It will all be worth it, considering I won't spend more than a third of my paycheck just to live. It's going to be affordable, and it's going to feel free. We will both have more space and time.”
She is already planning to use the land around her home to cultivate medicinal plants to help her clients and her community in their healing journeys. Kassandra is excited to “utilize all the space I have to create and to give.”
MHO’s Self-Help Program helps create more pathways to equitable homeownership for the people who call this region their home. We celebrate the hard work and collaboration this current cohort of Self-Helpers have put in as they’ve built their homes, and a new community, together. Vic and Kassandra will share their learnings with a new set of neighbors soon. Our next cohort of Self-Help Program participants will start building their homes at Spring Garden in the Summer of 2023.