Jan Ziettlow retired from teaching and moved to Boulder in the 1990s. For many years, she worked, and lived, at Boulder Hot Springs. But Ziettlow, who had kept most of her possessions in storage, including many family heirlooms, longed to get them out again. In 2009, when the National Affordable Housing Network launched a plan to develop affordable homes in Boulder, Ziettlow decided to purchase one of the five homes that the NAHN was building behind Boulder Elementary School.
Ziettlow met the income threshold at the time, so she applied and was accepted into what is called the “self-help” program — meaning that she, along with friends and family, had to put in at least 1,000 hours assisting with construction. Ziettlow shoveled gravel, put up insulation in the crawl space, helped install the waterproof barrier and painted the exterior siding.
Before she started the process, Ziettlow wasn’t sure if she wanted to buy a house again — having owned one in Iowa where she taught — but in the end, “I’m glad I did,” she said. She paid $94,139 in 2009 and has a 30-year fixed rate mortgage.
Few houses are available in Boulder in that range. Currently, some homes are available for around $150,000, but they tend to be either older construction or mobile homes.
The National Affordable Housing Network has coordinated the building of eight single family houses in Boulder over the years and has two lots left, said Miller. The agency would also like to build a fourplex for seniors or the disabled, she said.
Miller describes Boulder as having a “desperate need.”
NAHN’s approach isn’t a silver bullet for Boulder. Since its houses are “stick built” — constructed from the ground up, rather than pre-manufactured or modular — they tend to be more expensive.
And getting funding is a complicated process. Not only does NAHN have to prove the land can be developed, it must also cobble together a variety of funding streams to finalize the purchase, said Miller.
For the Boulder homes, Miller said the NAHN used loans totaling $1.08 million from local banks and a loan from the Self Help Opportunity Program to cover the costs of land and infrastructure.
“Permanent mortgage financing is based on what the homeowner qualifies for,” Miller said. In other projects, “This has included the Montana Board of Housing Habitat program, or USDA Rural Development 502 Direct loans, that are packaged through our free service. Every homebuyer starts with a homeownership counseling appointment to determine readiness for homeownership and what steps the household needs to take to qualify for financing.”
“You put it together like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Miller, adding that the organization also banks on a cushion of funding to overcome the fact that the projects are not designed to make a profit.
In the case of the Boulder property, which was developed in 2009-2010, a good deal of cushion was eroded by having to go through the expense of removing the derelict trailers, going through the subdivision process, as well as having to put in utilities. Miller said localities could help cover those expenses with grant funding, but Boulder did not.
Once the land is acquired, the NAHN waits until it has several applicants before beginning to build. Interested buyers can either purchase a home using the self-help option, where they participate in the building process, or the traditional way. To qualify, a family of four must have a yearly income of $66,250 or less.
For comparison, the annual median family income in Jefferson County this year is $82,800, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Today, homes in the self-help program are in the $150,000 to $185,000 range, depending upon the size and the land cost, said Miller, adding that they are generally three or four bedrooms with two to two-and-one-half baths.
The homes are typically $30,000 less in cost than the appraised value for the finished self help home, she said.
The $30,000 is the typical “sweat equity” earned by the borrower who participates in the self-help program with NAHN and Habitat. If the homes were “contractor built” they would cost about $50,000 to $70,000 more than appraised value, said Miller.
For Ziettlow, the process — from application to moving in — took about two years, a bit longer than she expected. As part of the program, all five houses had to be complete before anyone could move in, said Ziettlow.
Her one-story house is 1,092 square feet and is “technically” three bedrooms and one bathroom, but Ziettlow just uses one as a bedroom as she is single, with one room devoted to sewing and the other as an office. The house has a laundry room, and came with a small deck and a fenced yard, said Ziettlow.
Ziettlow particularly liked that she got to see the house being built and was assured that it is sturdy and well made. Buyers were given some leeway to make modifications, and Ziettlow chose laminate flooring throughout most of the house, with tile in the bathroom. She opted against a second half bath in the laundry room.
“They’re very tight and warm and fairly efficient,” said Ziettlow of her house.
Currently, the Network has one family interested in the one of the remaining two lots in Boulder, and once another buyer steps up and is approved, construction can begin, said Miller.
In addition to watching her home being built, Ziettlow also enjoyed getting to know the other four families building houses at the same time, as well as being able to meet contractors and workers for possible future needs.
The NAHN just doesn’t build houses, it builds neighborhoods, she said.