Barb Barasa, 63, loads rocks while working on the consruction of her new green house in Ashland.

Affordable and Green

Barb Barasa, a 63-year-old cellist and music teacher, has never built much of anything in her life. But now she's building her own house, a smart, two-story "patio home" with a great view, nestled above Ashland's dog park.

The job will take eight months, and she's getting to be good friends with her future neighbors, who are working by her side as they all help build the first eight green/sustainable homes at Rice Park.

It's an affordable housing project of the Rogue Valley Community Development Corporation, helping low-income renters get into low-interest mortgages backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development — something owners can do by performing 70 percent of the home-building work, about 1,500 hours.

Payments on Barasa's $136,000 loan — for a two-bedroom, 1,150-square-foot house — will be just under $700 a month, she says.

"My kids are grown, and I never thought I'd buy another home, but I'm doing it to get a solar, eco-friendly home," Barasa says.

Although most of the future owners don't have any experience in house building, construction supervisor Jeff Strickland is teaching them all they need to know.

"It's a learning curve at first," says Strickland. "Then they really pick up speed. They don't have to do anything they're uncomfortable with. Some don't like the power saws or heights, and that's fine."

Setting in stringers for stairs, 25-year-old Ian Ousley notes that he's marrying in March. He and his wife want a family, so a two-bedroom at Rice Park sounded perfect.

"It's a wonderful experience learning house building. We get to know our neighbors, and you see all the emotion come out on the job. It's good exercise, too," says Ousley, who quit a retail sales job to build the houses.

"I've been renting a lot. We don't have a lot of equity, so this is a great opportunity to own. We move in in September."

RVCDC's Rice Park project is called "mutual self-help," meaning owners work for the affordable terms — including no down payment. It helps buyers qualify for something they can afford "without oversubsidizing them," says executive director John Wheeler.

To keep the units affordable, they can be sold with no more than $4,000 annual appreciation added to the price. To qualify, applicants must earn no more than 80 percent of the median income for this region, or $31,000 for an individual and $45,000 for a four-person family.

RVCDC was given the land by the City of Ashland, whose ordinances require that part of developments go to affordable housing. Money for the construction was an endowment from the late sisters Elizabeth and Ann Rice.

The project, certified green by Earth Advantage, includes solar water heating, Energy Star appliances, heat pumps, passive solar design, energy-efficient lighting and plumbing, recycled carpeting and materials containing few or no volatile organic compounds. The houses are designed so rain catchment and photovoltaic panels can be added later if the owners choose.

"We love Ashland, and this is the only 'in' for owning a house here," says Richard Whitney, 46, an experienced carpenter who is helping teach his future neighbors.

His loan of $146,000 over 33 years will cost $645 a month, less than the rent he now pays. The house is valued at $220,000, so his sweat equity gives him a $74,000 stake in the home when they move in.

"I enjoy working with people who have never done this work," says Whitney. "We're going to be saving $300 or $400 a month. It's cheaper than renting — and with all the energy-saving features, the utilities will be less."

RVCDC helps arrange loans at 4.5 percent, and Rural Development subsidizes that down to the 1- to 3-percent range, says Wheeler. Most loans are 33 years but can go up to 38 if it helps keep housing costs under one-third of income.

Rice Park is the only mutual self-help home program in the valley, but RVCDC hopes to do more of them.

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