INHABITAT: Finding adequate, safe, healthy and energy efficient housing should be a basic human right. What are some of the issues now in the US that prevent someone with a low to moderate income with finding and buying housing
Jessica Kellner: One of the ironies of the housing crisis, to me, is that the banks were shelling out money and huge mortgages to just about anyone beforehand, convincing them that they could pay their low introductory rates, then turn around and refinance or sell the house for a profit because housing values kept going up and up. Then after the market crashed because of their irresponsible lending practices (and in my mind, economists and the heads of major mortgage companies should be responsible for understanding market trends, not the average person trying to buy a home for her family), they reacted by tightening their lending practices so much that it makes it difficult even for qualified, responsible borrowers to obtain a mortgage.
We also face a situation in which housing within many city centers is either very expensive or dilapidated, leaving people with great jobs that don’t pay a lot such as teachers and firefighters with no option but to move out to the suburbs, buy a little vinyl house and commute a long distance. That’s what inspired Nancy Murray to found her nonprofit Builders of Hope, which I profile in the book. She says it seemed that the universe was continuously bringing people into her life who were hardworking people who worked in the city but were forced to move their families to the suburbs because of the lack of affordable, quality housing inside Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives. She wanted to help provide nice, healthy and affordable housing to families who aren’t rich, so she used a small inheritance to begin the nonprofit. Since 2007, she’s created 10 neighborhoods in 6 cities, all of them built from renovated donated homes that would have otherwise been demolished, and all rehabilitated with a commitment to green and healthy principles. She’s creating safe homes for many people who couldn’t afford them otherwise, and she’s creating a national, replicable model, as well.
INHABITAT: Many people assume that the only way to own a home outright is through a mortgage? What were the secrets of the families and projects you featured to own their home outright?
Jessica Kellner: The people in my book used a variety of methods to finance their homes. The biggest financial issue is always going to be land acquisition. You have to have land. Some people had inherited a small piece of property, others bought land with an affordable loan, others such as the people whose homes were built by the Phoenix Commotion were aided by a seed fund. Dan Phillips, the founder of the Phoenix Commotion, has a lot of really intriguing ideas about community investment. He uses a donated seed fund through a partnership with a local nonprofit to help finance the initial materials to start building a home. Then he saves tons of money by using mostly free waste materials and low-cost labor. After the home is complete, it appraises at much more than the costs that went into it. The homeowner takes out a small mortgage on the place, then pays back the seed money with it.
Pretty much everyone in my book avoided construction loans by doing the majority of the work themselves, and spent virtually nothing on building materials because they salvaged most of them from deconstruction sites or elsewhere. A couple of the people in my book used salvaged materials along with a straw-bale infill structure. Straw bale can be expensive if you hire it out, but it’s incredibly cheap if you do the labor yourself. All it requires are straw bales and plaster for the walls, which you can make yourself. You can learn to construct a straw-bale home by volunteering on other people’s projects. Many cities and states have straw-bale associations or organizations where you can connect with others. Then after volunteering, you build up a network of people who will come and help you build your house. It’s a really fun way to build community while also accomplishing something great.