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Achieving the American Dream through Programs that Work

Alton and Robin Alexander lived in Western Michigan with their two daughters in a comfortable, modest and safe neighborhood prior to the Great Recession. However, as the nation’s economy struggled, this family of four lost their home and was forced to move into a substandard rental unit.

The Alexanders’ story is not unique. Homeownership is considered a central tenet of the American Dream, but its value to families and communities is sometimes overlooked. June is National Homeownership Month, which shines a spotlight on the value of homeownership. For many low and moderate income rural families, homeownership is only possible through financing from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Housing Service programs. In Fiscal Year 2015 alone, USDA Rural Development awarded $900 million Section 502 direct single-family housing loans and made more than $18.6 billion Section 502 guarantees to help more than 141,000 rural American families become homeowners.

One of those families is Jeff, a single father, and his four children in Morristown, Tennessee. Back injuries limited Jeff’s ability to work and the family lived in a doublewide trailer. Eventually the family moved in to affordable rental housing owned and maintained by Clinch-Powell RC&D, a Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises (FAHE) Member. With assistance from Clinch-Powell, Jeff applied for a Section 502 Direct loan. FAHE helped prepare the application. Jeff and his children will soon be moving into their new home.

The Section 502 direct program is also an essential tool for the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, where groups of six to 12 families are paired together to help build each other’s houses with technical assistance from non-profit organizations. This program, which includes more than 100 Self-Help Grantee Organizations in 40 states and territories, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015, and has helped more than 50,000 families build their own homes.

The Self-Help housing program is bigger than just homeownership: through the technical assistance from organizations like the Coachella Valley Housing Corporation (CVHC), this program allows families to gain financial stability and builds communities where children can thrive. For example, in Mecca, California, CVHC helped the Rodriquez family, including four children, move from their dilapidated rental apartment into a safe, clean rental complex, and eventually to become homeowners through the Mutual Self Help program. Juan Rodriguez, one of those children, went on to graduate from UC Berkeley, and now helps CVHC improve the community he grew up in.

The success of the Self-Help and Section 502 Direct programs depend on the partnership with community development organizations operating around the country. Like CVHC, Pathfinder Services, Inc. is a not-for-profit human and community development. With Pathfinder’s assistance, the Alexanders, mentioned above, were able to escape their inadequate rental home and regain homeownership through the Section 502 direct loan program. The Alexanders are now the proud owners of a new home in Fort Wayne, Michigan– a safe neighborhood where their daughters can play and grow.

It is important to celebrate the success of these families and recognize the dedication of organizations like CVHC, FAHE and Pathfinder Services. However, there is more work to be done. Affordability remains a barrier for many seeking homeownership, and in some communities a lack of affordable housing options is hindering economic prosperity for the community.  For example, in some communities in parts of North Dakota businesses are unable to fill well-paying jobs due to an absence of affordable housing.

As National Homeownership Month comes to an end, we must continue to work to ensure that all families around the country have an opportunity to achieve the American Dream.