Alaskans can skip the down payment in this housing program. Instead, they put in sweat equity.

 a woman in a home under construction points
From inside one of nine home under construction in Soldotna, Whitney Cavazos points to her future home a few lots over on Aug. 31, 2023. She and her husband schedule in at least 36 hours of construction work a week on top of their day jobs as owner-builders in RurAL Cap’s Mutual Self-Help Housing program. (Adam Nicely/Alaska Public Media)

Down a gravel road in Soldotna, the clatter of lumber, buzz of a mitre saw and pops of a nail gun mixed with country music at a house under construction along a lightly wooded creek.  

This evening, Whitney Cavazos was behind the mitre saw, cutting two-by-fours that will become frames for interior walls. She said it’s exciting work. 

“But also a little scary ‘cause I’ve never built a house, I’ve never done construction,” she said. “I assembled a uh, like, a cabinet in college? And that was about all I’ve done.”

During her day job as a secretary at Soldotna Montessori Charter School, she’s usually behind a desk. 

Cavazos and the other construction workers here are also the homeowners. Nine local families are working together to build nine homes, and when they’re all finished, then everyone can move in.

They’re in a long-running program that’s helped lots of Alaskans build and own their own homes. 

The program is through RurAL Cap’s Mutual Self-Help Housing program, which connects families with low-interest and subsidized mortgages from the federal government. The nonprofit, which is supported mostly with federal and state grants and has a mission of empowering low-income Alaskans, also provides construction training and oversight. 

The Alaska Community Development Corp. runs a similar program in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys. 

Each family commits to work at least 36 hours a week on the houses through completion. Volunteers can contribute, too. All that labor replaces the down payments. 

Cavazos said it’s a lot of hard work. 

“But, we couldn’t deny the benefits of building your house and getting that sweat equity,” she said. 

Cavazos thinks her house will be finished before Christmas next year. It’s energy efficient and 1,500 square feet. It will have four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage. Without RurAL Cap’s program, she said a house like that might cost $250,000 more than what her mortgage will be.  

The nonprofit says the financial terms vary, but that families generally end up paying a little less in monthly mortgage payments than they pay in rent. 

RurAL Cap has helped a lot Alaskans with this program over the years. Rhonda Johnson learned about the program in 2009. To rent an apartment for herself and four kids, she used to have a lot of odd jobs: McDonald’s, Walmart, bus driver, personal care assistant.

“Oh no, there’s no way I could’ve bought a home,” she said. “Who has $30,000 to put down on the home?” 

Construction workers in a partially framed home
Rhonda Johnson works with owner-builders in RurAL Cap’s mutual self-help housing program at a site in Soldotna on Aug. 31, 2023. Before working for RurAL Cap, she logged thousands of volunteer hours working on her own and others homes through the program. (Adam Nicely/Alaska Public Media)

It took about seven years before she qualified, made it up the waitlist and finished her four-bedroom home a few miles away. 

“And then I had friends and builds after mine,” Johnson said. “And I just helped build, build, build and I just love to volunteer.” 

Within a few years, she logged thousands of hours on 45 homes. She won a national volunteer award in 2021. Now, she works for RurAL Cap on the program. 

“Now I’m a construction worker, and I like it,” she said. 

She said it’s fulfilling.

“Just to move in and they can say it’s their own home. ‘I built it with my hands,’” Johnson said. 

Chris Blanchard is the project manager on site. 

“I also am the teacher,” he said. “I run the whole construction side of the program.”

A man stands by the window from the unfinished interior of a home under construction
From a home under construction in Soldotna, project manager Chris Blanchard explains his role in RurAL Cap’s Mutual Self-Help program on Aug. 31, 2023. Blanchard says he met his wife through a past build, when he was a volunteer. (Adam Nicely/Alaska Public Media)

He used to be a general contractor. Now, he said the most satisfying part of his job is teaching others a trade. 

“There are many homeowners that, first day here, they have no idea how to read a tape measure. And by now, they’re on their own, they’re marking walls or cutting boards on their own,” he said. “You know, by the time they get done with nine houses? They’re almost journeyman carpenters.”

Cavazos, the owner-builder behind the mitre saw, said she’s gotten pretty comfortable in the construction site – though she still measures three times before cutting.

a portrait of a man outside

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him atjhsieh@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremyhere.

Previous articleFrom a scuba trip to household bills, here’s how 8 Alaskans are spending this year’s PFD
Next articleShe received chemo in two states. Why did it cost so much more in Alaska?