Farmworker Housing Poverty Spotlight

Smithsonian Magazine Recognizes Self-Help Enterprises’ Dedication to Helping America’s Working Poor

In an article published in the December 2016 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, author Dale Maharidge chronicled the struggles that many of America’s working poor, including high poverty rates, housing affordability issues and food-scarcity.  While just over 43 million people, or 13.5 percent of the population, live below the poverty line ($11,880) in the United States, over 31 percent – over 101 million – of Americans are considered “low-income,” meaning they make no more than $48,600 for a family of four or $23,760 for a single person.  These families’ low-incomes means that affording safe housing is frequently an issue, particularly because of the ever-increasing cost of housing.

A portion of the article is dedicated to America’s farmworkers.  Even though these people work long, back-breaking shifts, due in part to the seasonal nature of farming crops, these families often face great difficulty in affording basic necessities – like a safe place to call home and decent food – even while working full-time.

In California’s Central Valley, where Self-Help Enterprises, Inc. works, farms growing 250 different crops produce a fourth of the nation’s food.  The article noted that since SHE was founded in 1965, it has helped family participants create over 6,200 homes in the region through the self-help housing program, which allows participants to use “sweat equity” in place of a down payment. By contributing at least 40 hours a week over the roughly one-year construction period, the families complete 65 percent of the labor in their homes with the help of their future neighbors.

Poverty Spotlight

Income, Poverty and Population in Rural America

The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report on poverty and income in America was released on September 13, 2016.

The findings of this report have been highlighted by many sources as an example of the economic growth experienced in many communities in recent years, noting that the median household income increased 5.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, the fastest increase on record.  For example, the White House Blog stated that the “report from the Census Bureau shows the remarkable progress that American families have made as the recovery continues to strengthen. . . . Income grew for households across the income distribution, with the fastest growth among lower- and middle-income households.”

While statements like this are certainly supported by the findings of the Census report, they do not provide a complete picture as to where this growth has occurred and the economic state of communities all around the country.  Specifically, within metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), income levels rose six percent (7.3 percent for city dwellers, 4 percent for suburban and exurban residents).  Alternatively, the income levels for rural communities (including micropolitan statistical areas and areas outside of MSAs and micropolitan areas) declined by 2 percent.

A 2015 CAP report, “The Uneven Housing Recovery,” found that while many Americans have recovered from the economic recession, those that have not primarily reside in rural and nonmetropolitan areas.  The improved economies in metropolitan areas is related to growing populations and strengthening labor markets, which have aided these areas’ recovery from the recession.

Differentiated from metropolitan counties, small rural communities, which have not experienced the same level of recovery, have seen shrinking populations.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS) found that between 2010 and 2015 the population of rural communities dropped 33,000 per year from 2010-2014 and 4,000 in 2015.  Comparatively, between 2010 and 2014, the urban population increased by more than two million people each year.

Decreasing populations in rural communities present unique challenges, and are a further issue impeding economic growth for these areas.  For example, the Census report found that poverty rates overall declined 1.2 percent from 14.8 percent in 2014 to 13.5 percent in 2015.  As with the Census report’s findings on income, declining poverty overall does not mean poverty has not increased in certain communities.

From 2014 to 2015, the actual number of rural Americans living in poverty declined from around 8.2 million to 7.4 million.   However, the decline in the number of people living in rural poverty was primarily due to out-migration – not improved economic conditions. Thus, for this same time period, the Census report found that the poverty rate for rural areas actually increased, albeit slightly (+0.2). The point is there was not any progress in reducing economic distress in rural areas.

The 2015 CAP report looked at the difference levels of recovery experienced by counties across the country.  The report found that most “struggling” counties are located in nonmetropolitan and rural areas.  These counties are characterized in the report as, at best, “stagnant” and more often “slipping” or sinking.”

Since 2009, slipping counties have experienced slow population growth and declining labor participation, and nearly 18 percent of the population in these areas live in poverty.  While homeownership is prevalent and renting is less common in slipping counties, the percentage of households who are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, is much higher for renters than homeowners. Additionally, as housing prices have increased (from about 11 percent in 2011 to 11.5 percent in 2014, so too have vacancy rates, which were at percent in 2014.

Sinking counties have fared the worst in terms of recovery from the economic recession.  In addition to higher unemployment rates than other counties, the labor force has declined since 2009 and since 2013, job growth has stalled.  New construction of housing has been declining since 2012, and vacancy rates between 2010 and 2014 remained stagnant.

The Census report shows that many communities’ across the country are recovering from the economic recession.  However, a closer look at the Census report, as well as other recent research on poverty, homeownership and employment demonstrates that this recovery is not spread equally with rural communities.  As the discussion on economic growth and recovery continues, policy makers should ensure that the need of rural Americans is not left out of the conversation.

Poverty Spotlight

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.

Poverty Resources Spotlight

Under Secretary Mensah Meets with Central Valley Family Using USDA Funds for New Water Well

While in California last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Lisa Mensah toured a self-help housing tract that Self-Help Enterprises is developing in Merced County and visited with a family that is a recipient of USDA funds. Representative Jim Costa (D-CA) was also on the tour.

Under Secretary Mensah and Congressman Costa met with the Cabrera family, of Madera, California, who have spent the past two years without running water.  According to Tom Collishaw, the President and CEO of Self-Help Enterprises, the Cabreras are one of around 2,000 families in the rural Central Valley who are suffering from water shortages due to drought.  For the past two years, the Cabreras were forced to buy water to do basic tasks such as wash dishes and flush toilets, and to go to their children’s home to shower.  The Cabrera family, with help from Self-Help Enterprises, secured USDA funding, which includes a grant for a new electrical panel and a much needed loan to finance a new water well.  The Cabreras now have running water through a temporary water tank, and a permanent water well will be installed sometime in February.  For more information on the Under Secretary’s trip and the Cabreras, please read Dale Young’s article from ABC 30 Action News and Gregory Woods’ article on

Budget Key Issues Legislation Poverty

2016 Omnibus Bill Includes Record Funding For Rural Housing Programs



Contact: Bob Rapoza
National Rural Housing Coalition
Phone: (202) 393-5225


2016 Omnibus Bill Includes Record Funding for Rural Housing Programs

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2015 – Yesterday, Congress released the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2016. This bill funds several programs, including the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, Section 521 Rural Rental Assistance, and HOME Investment Partnership Program, above the levels previously included in the House and Senate appropriations bills.  This funding will allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the needs of rural communities.

“The funding for rural housing programs in this year’s appropriations bill are the highest they have been in recent memory, and at least since the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1992,” said Bob Rapoza, the executive secretary of the National Rural Housing Coalition. “In an era of austerity, partnerships between nonprofit and for-profit organizations, local community governments, and the federal government are essential.”

Around 46.2 million Americans live in rural communities, and 8.2 million of them live in poverty. NRHC notes that 2.6 million of those people are children under 18.  Concentrated poverty leads to decreases in affordable standard housing, health conditions, and educational outcomes.  Even though housing in rural communities is generally less costly, because of lower incomes, higher poverty rates, limited housing stock, and limited access to credit, many rural Americans live in inadequate and substandard homes.

Programs funded by the omnibus will provide the resources needed to develop and preserve affordable rural housing.  Section 521 Rural Rental Assistance payments are made to owners of USDA Section 515 financed rural multi-family homes to subsidize the rent payments of low- and very-low income tenants, who often have no other housing option. The funding level ensures all current very-low income tenants, including many elderly and persons with disabilities, will continue to have a safe, decent place to live.

With the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, 8 to 12 low- and very-low income family groups build their own homes with technical assistance and supervision from nonprofit housing organizations.  Self-help families put in an average of 1,189.9 labor hours in constructing their homes, while working regular jobs and caring for their children. The President’s budget proposed a significant cut to the Self-Help program, but Congress rejected this reduction. The omnibus will fund the program at the FY2015 level.

The HOME Program, funded at $950 million for FY 2016, provides grants to states and local governments. The grantees, who often partner with local nonprofit organizations, use this funding for a variety of housing-related projects such as building, buying, or rehabilitating affordable housing for rental and homeownership purposes.  A recent report by the HOME Coalition indicates the program generated $94 billion in local income and 1.5 million jobs nationwide. With the funding level for the HOME Program included in the omnibus, some of the nation’s neediest families will get the support they require.

“It is wonderful to see members of Congress and the President standing up for rural families,” said Rapoza.  “NRHC encourages the House and Senate to vote in support of the increased funding for these essential programs for rural communities.”


About the National Rural Housing Coalition
NRHC is a national membership organization of non-profit housing organizations, housing developers, state and local officials, and housing advocates. Since 1969, NRHC has promoted and defended the principle that rural people have the right—regardless of income—to a decent, affordable place to live, clean drinking water, and basic community services. For more information, visit




Key Issues Poverty Spotlight

Do Presidential Hopefuls Have a Plan for Rural America?

The presidential hopefuls are well underway in their respective campaigns, with a combined total of six debates over the past few month.  While many candidates are focused on how they can make America stronger, there has yet to be any major discussion on what their plans are for rural America.  Read more in Bob Rapoza’s article, Do presidential hopefuls have a plan for rural America? – published in The Hill on December 3, 2015.

Poverty Spotlight

Mutual Self-Help Housing Program Briefing and Reception

On Tuesday, November 17, 2015, the National Rural Housing Coalition (NRHC) along with the National Rural Self-Help Housing Association (NRSHHA) hosted a Briefing in celebration of the 50th Anniversary and the 50,000th family served through the mutual self-help housing program.

The event featured seven self-help housing programs from all around the country.  Presenters included Russell Huxtable, President of the National Rural Self-Help Housing Directors Association and Vice President and COO of Milford Housing Development Corporation in Delaware; Tom Collishaw, President and CEO of Self-Help Enterprises in California, Brad Bishop, Executive Director of Self-Help Homes in Utah; Tom Manning-Beavin, Director of Housing of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation; John Fowler, President and CEO of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing in California; Mitzi Barker, Planning and Construction Division Director of RurAL CAP in Alaska; and Nick Mitchell-Bennett, Community Development Corporation of Brownsville Executive Director in Texas.

Karen Speakman, Deputy Director of NCALL Research, Inc. and President of NRHC gave opening and closing statements, and  Administrator Tony Hernandez of USDA Rural Housing Service, provided remarks on the success of the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program.

Two members of Congress gave remarks at the event – Representative Sam Farr and Representative David Valadao.  Both Congressmen were recognized by NRHC and NRSHHA for their dedication to America’s rural communities and contribution to the Mutual Self-Help Housing Program.

The briefing also included highlights from the NRHC Mutual Self-Help Survey, which was released in a report earlier that day.  The highlights of the survey are as follows:

  • Average Length of Time as a Self-Help Grantee: 20 Years
  • Average Hours Provided by Family Per Home:  1,189
  • Number of Homes Built or Planned for Current Grant Year: 1,566
  • Percent of Self-Help Families that are Single-Parent: 52 percent
  • Number of Children Living in Self-Help Homes: 11,308 (from 25 responding self-help grantees)
  • Percent of Families Served who are Minorities: 46 percent
  • Percent of Self-Help families who are Very-Low Income: 45 percent

To read the report, please click here.

Representative Valadao with Tom Collishaw, President of Self-Help Enterprises.
Representative Farr and South County Housing President Dennis Lalor.

The videos that were shown are provided below.

1. Community Development Corporation of Brownsville:

2. Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation & Fahe:

3. Milford Housing Development Corporation:

4. Peoples’ Self-Help Housing:

5. Rural CAP Alaska:

6. Self-Help Enterprises:

7. Self-Help Homes:



Ten communities from around the country have been named Rural IMPACT Demonstration Sites.  Rural IMPACT is a part of a larger initiative by the White House Rural Council (also called “Rural Impact” – only this time all the letters of “Impact” are not capitalized), which is designed to address the high rates of child poverty in rural areas by using a multi-generational approach for the investment of public and private resources in families and communities.  Rural Impact is an effort by the administration to combat poverty and improve upward mobility for people living in rural areas or tribal places.

The purpose of Rural IMPACT (short for “Rural Integration Models for Parents and Children to Thrive”) is to assist communities in adopting “comprehensive, whole-family framework for addressing child poverty, such as through facilitating physical colocation of services, universal ‘no wrong door’ intake, referral networks shared measurement systems, and use of technology to deliver services.”[1]   Through Rural IMPACT, federal agencies will work together to assist rural and tribal communities in addressing the needs of vulnerable families.  The goal is to both increase the parents’ employment and education, and ensure child and family well-being.

The ten communities selected to participate in the Rural IMPACT Demonstration are:

  1.  Berea (KY), Partners for Education at Berea College (Serving Knox County, KY)
  2. Blanding (UT), The San Juan Foundation (Serving San Juan County, UT)
  3. Blytheville (AR), Mississippi County, Arkansas Economic Opportunity Commission, Inc. (Serving Mississippi County, AR)
  4. Hillsboro (OH), Highland County Community Action Organization, Inc. (Serving Highland County, OH)
  5. Hugo (OK), Little Dixie Community Action Agency, Inc. (Serving Choctaw, McCurtain and Pushmataha Counties)
  6. Jackson (MS), Friends of Children of Mississippi, Inc. (Serving Issaquena, Sharkey and Humphreys Counties, MS)
  7. Machias (ME), Community Caring Collaborative (Serving Washington County, ME)
  8. Marshalltown (IA), Mid‐Iowa Community Action, Inc. (Serving Marshalltown, IA)
  9. Oakland (MD), Garrett County Community Action Committee and the Allegany Human Resources Commission (Serving Garrett and Allegany Counties, MD)
  10. White Earth (MN), White Earth Reservation Tribal Council (Serving Mahnomen County and portions of Clearwater and Becker Counties)[2]

These rural and tribal communities were selected by the Health and Human Services Department after submitting letters of interest to participate.  The participants will receive targeted technical assistance (TA) during a six-month planning period with to help communities link programs and services.  The participants will also receive at least 6 months of additional TA to assist with implementing their plan specifically targeting child poverty.  The participants will work with the Corporation for National and Community Service to develop projects and place AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers with local partners to assist in building local community capacity.  Additionally peer sharing of information between the participants will be encouraged, and the participants will receive support form a federal interagency team to address barriers to cross-programmatic work.

While technical assistance and information sharing will likely provide some benefit to rural communities, the question that Rural IMPACT creates is, other than technical assistance, is there really anything to this initiative?  However well intentioned, technical assistance from federal agencies alone is not a substitute for inadequately funded schools, poor nutation, substandard housing or lack clean drinking water – all of which are putting rural families and children at great risk, and must be addressed.

[1] Fact Sheet: 10 Communities Named Rural IMPACT Demonstration Sites, USDA News Release, 9/25/2015,

[2] Fact Sheet: 10 Communities Named Rural IMPACT Demonstration Sites, USDA News Release, 9/25/2015,; Whitney Foreman-Cook, White House Project COnsolidates Federal Programs to Fight Rural Proverty, 9/25/2015,