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Monday, November 03, 2008

Building the American Dream

Dezaray Micklevitz and her son clear rocks from the backyard of their new home in Delavan. Micklevitz is participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, which promotes affordable housing for low-income workers. Dan Plutchak/photos

By Dan Plutchak/Associate editor

DELAVAN -- Dezaray Micklevitz spent a recent Wednesday afternoon doing yard work. There's no grass yet in her backyard, but there is plenty of optimism.

That's because she's growing more than a simple lawn; she's growing a piece of the American dream.

Micklevitz is nearly finished building her new home, a home made possible by a little-known federal program that helps people with a job and good credit trade sweat equity for a mortgage and a new life.

She is one of dozens of Walworth County homeowners participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, where participants contribute roughly a third of the labor required to build their home.

They also qualify for USDA mortgages, often with 33-year fixed-rate terms and low interest rates.

While the real estate market nationwide has come to a halt and the credit that kept it moving has dried up, this program operates without those handicaps, according to Art Gonzalez, executive director of Southeastern Wisconsin Housing Corp., a nonprofit agency that administers the program for the USDA.

Gonzalez has been at this for 38 years, and has helped more than 1,500 homeowners.

The success of this government program comes from its narrow focus on applicants who are working and have good credit.

"This isn't a handout," Gonzalez is quick to point out.

Gonzalez says he's hoping to build on the program's success and is looking for new participants. He says many people don't apply because they think they won't be accepted.

It's true that only about one in 15 applications are approved, but Gonzalez says it's still worth applying.

In some instances, he'll work with applicants to get them to a point where they'll qualify.

"If you don't have good credit, we'll work with you to help, but it may take a couple of years," he says.

Gonzalez is much more than an administrator, however. He is at times a cheerleader, social worker, contractor and encouraging father figure.

For those like Micklevitz, Gonzalez is the one who keeps them going when the going gets tough.

Everyone in the program agrees that building their home has been the hardest thing they've ever done.

"It's hard on your body. You can't do anything else. But it's only for a while," Micklevitz said. And at the end, you have a house.

Micklevitz, a single mother of two, works full time in Delavan, then puts in the required 30 hours each week on her home.

But the benefits far outweigh the demands.

"You're not moving all the time," she said. "That, and the fact that I'll have a home for my kids."

In addition to preparing her backyard for seeding (she hopes to get the lawn in before the snow flies, so it will grow quickly in the spring), Micklevitz has done the framing, hung drywall, installed cabinets, painted and put up siding. Basically, the homeowners are responsible from the foundation up.

Micklevitz' street, in this sprawling new subdivision on Delavan's west side, is lined with homes built by people just like her.

While Micklevitz' home is nearly finished, Kim Feine is in the early stages of building her modest single-story home across the street.

Feine, a 20-year-old single mom with a 2-year-old and another child on the way, works 40 hours a week as a certified nursing assistant. She began work on the home in June, but with her baby due in a few weeks, she's working as hard as she can to keep up with the schedule.

"It's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done," Feine says. "But the reward is what makes it worth it."

A few blocks away, the newest group to enter the program is building three houses.

The first house is going up quickly. The foundation was finished on a weekend, and by the following Wednesday, the outside walls were up and the garage-roof trusses were being moved into place.

The group of homeowners-to-be moves from house to house, helping each other with the major framing work under the direction of Construction Director Lanny Esch. He's an example of the unintended benefits of the program. He was a participant 26 years ago, when he built his own home.

More than building a home, he's watched as participants build confidence and self-esteem.

"I've seen grown men cry when their house is finished and the see what they've done," he said.

He shares the same pride. "I never would have had a house without this program," he said.

After building his own home, Esch stayed with Gonzalez to direct construction for each new group of prospective homeowners.

Gonzalez admits that homeownership is no guarantee of a wealthier life.

"I've had some third-generation families go through the program," he said.

But he does guarantee that with lots of hard work, a piece of the American dream is the reward.


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