She hopes to bring housing project ?home?

Melanie Sullivan had such a positive experience with her Mennonite Housing Rehabilita?tion Services Inc. self-help project in Valley Center that she asked if she could work for the non-profit entity after her new house was completed in 2009.

Today, as rural housing coordinator for non-profit organization, the 2002 Hillsboro High School graduate is the company?s primary liaison in an effort to bring a similar project to her hometown.

The effort to add at least five new, affordable houses to the community has been spearheaded locally by the Hillsboro Development Corp. and supported by the city of Hillsboro.

?I want to get something going in Hillsboro?I think it would be phenomenal there,? Sullivan said. ?Hillsboro has been on my mind since we?ve been building (my own home). There was talk before I came to Mennonite Housing about Hillsboro, but when I came in I gave it the push.?

Sullivan said initial informational meetings have supported her contention that there are families in Hillsboro, many with deep roots in the community, that are interested in and could qualify for the program.

?And there are so many people outside Hillsboro who are wanting to come in and just get their kids in the school system,? she added. ?I?ve had calls from Peabody, from Walton, from Marion. It?s the school system, not even the program, that is drawing these families. They so desperately want to buy a home there and can?t find anything reasonable.?

A personal boost

Sullivan sees herself as a case in point. As a single mother-to-be who was working at a local bank, she was living in Wichita with her parents, Tim and Donna Sullivan.

Tim is a district pastor for the Mennonite Brethren denomination after serving 14 years as pastor of Parkview Church in Hillsboro.

Melanie said she was interested in moving out on her own again, but did not want to live in an apartment again.

?I wanted to be able to store stuff and build a home,? she said. ?That was important to me.?

It was Donna who saw Mennonite Housing?s classified ad in the newspaper about providing an opportunity for people to build their own home.

?She came back from the (informational) meeting bouncing off the walls?she was so excited about this program,? Melanie said.

Together, they met with a company recruiter who explained the ?Mutual Self Help Loan Program,? where participants who qualify financially receive subsidized loans through USDA Rural Development and contribute 40 hours of ?sweat equity? a week to the project.

Because Mennonite Housing builds a cluster of at least five homes at a time, program participants work on each other?s houses as well as their own. No one moves in until all the houses are completed.

?It started to look real good to me, and they had a group almost ready to go,? Melanie said.

Each adult in a dual-income family can sign up for 20 hours of labor each week. As a single adult, Melanie recruited assistance from family and friends to meet the 40-hour commitment.

Her parents committed to help, but during the six to seven months it took to complete the project, groups from her home church in Wichita and from Parkview pitched in, too.

?All of those hours are credited to you,? Melanie said.

For Melanie and her parents?usually Tim?the self-help commitment meant coming to the work site from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. each Tuesday and Thursday and all day Saturday.

Key aspects of the project?such as pouring the basement and installing the plumbing and electrical?are contracted out to licensed professionals. But the homeowner is involved in almost everything else.

The work is done with instruction and supervision of a Mennonite Housing foreman. As a result of her project, Melanie and Tim said they both have learned new construction skills they continue to use today.

Even though much of the construction?about 65 percent?is done by people who often start out as rookies, Tim said he?d favorably compare the craftsmanship of the finished project with any he?s seen.

Along the way, Melanie added, she developed close relationships with the other homeowners that continue long after the houses are completed.

Challenges

But for all the advantages, challenges still crop up along the way.

?It?s not always hunky-dory,? Melanie Sullivan said. ?You?re working with people and you?re working with construction?two things that come with hiccups. There were some conflicts, but it wasn?t anything we couldn?t work through.?

The thought of working so many hours each week was daunting at the start. But in the end, the time went fast?and the process of building one?s own home turned out to be profoundly satisfying.

?You?re seeing the progress yourself instead of sitting back and watching somebody else do the work,? Sullivan said. ?You have a hand in it and it seems to go a lot quicker.?

Building plans

The house plan Sullivan chose has 943 square feet on the main floor, plus a full basement.

?That?s our smallest floor plan,? she said. ?We go up to 1,286 square feet.?

Under the guidelines, every project includes three finished bedrooms and two finished full bathrooms. They can all be on the main floor, or one bathroom and one bedroom can be finished out in an otherwise unfinished basement.

The participant also can choose to include a brick or stone veneer on the front exterior of the house, as well as select the window treatments, paint colors, floor covering and cabinets for the interior.

?It really becomes your house,? Sullivan said.

Another benefit has been Mennonite Housing?s commitment to ?green construction??incorporating energy-efficient strategies that will reduce the homeowner?s utility bills for years to come.

?We?ve been doing green for a couple of years, and we?ve gotten more green,? Sullivan said. ?The more things we learn how to do green, the more we include. We?re not staying in a rut by just doing it one way.?

Affordability

Aside from quality construction, one of the primary goals of Mennonite Housing is making the house affordable and ensuring that homeowners will be successful at paying and caring for it.

To help make it affordable, Rural Development offers a 33-year mortgage; house payments are reviewed regularly and the subsidized interest rate on the loan can be as low as 1 percent. The rate can be adjusted each month according to increases or decreases in household income.

Even in difficult financial times, the center that handles payments will work with the homeowner as long as the homeowner maintains communication.

?We want to make sure these homeowners are successful,? Sullivan said. ?They have to go through (and pass) a home-ownership class, where they can receive credit counseling as well as tips on how to keep credit going and improve.?

With the combination of sweat equity and possibility of additional grants, the cost of a house project in Hillsboro is reduced by $45,000 right off the top, she said.

Her home in Valley Center is appraised at $145,000.

Contact information

Sullivan said the program in Hillsboro has two serious applicants at present; Mennonite Housing requires a minimum of five approved applications to get started.

For more information, she can be reached by phone at 316-218-7895 or by e-mail at msullivan@mhrsi.org.

Clint Seibel, executive director of the Hillsboro Develop?ment Corp., is serving as the local contact. He can be reached at 620-947-3458.

Sullivan said she is eager to see a Menno?nite Housing project start in her hometown.

?I?ve experienced the benefit of new housing, and having it be affordable,? she said. ?I know it?s such a struggle to be able to afford something nice, something new.

?Just to bring something new into Hillsboro is exciting to me,? she added. ?There are a lot of older homes (in town), and this will bring in something new and bring in some new energy and new people to make the community grow.?

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