Sara Neel holds a handful of roots she dug from the future lawn of her under-construction home in the Somersett subdivision Tuesday. Under SACD’s self-help housing program, Neel is responsible for handling non-skilled labor like cleaning, painting and other chores. Neel’s family will be one of two living in the new subdivision.
Twenty-three-year-old Sara Neel is a single mother and a full-time college student who has a full-time job. Despite the recession and with the help of a local non-profit organization, she is also building a 1,400-square-foot home.
In a light drizzle Tuesday afternoon, Neel and her mother, Diana, paid a visit to her under-construction home in the Somersett subdivision, located on the western edge of Arkadelphia on Highway 8, to dig and pull roots from the future lawn.
According to local realtors, Neel’s home is one of six being built in Clark County, said SACD President Teddy Gardner. Three of those six homes are being built under the direction of South Arkansas Community Development, the non-profit that helped Neel start building a home through a self-help program. Neel’s home is the second home to be built in Somersett, a three-phase housing subdivision that began as an idea in late 2004. The first family to build a home in Somersett was Jeremy and Jennifer Ardnt, who announced in June they would build. Their home is nearly finished.
Neel said here is where she wants to live and raise her family. “My friends were like, ‘Why would you want to build a home now?’” Her response: “This is where I want my son to go to school. (Somersett) is on pretty property, it looks like you’re in the country.” But she’ll actually be only a few seconds from shopping opportunities and minutes away from the school where she plans to enroll her son, John Michael Ferguson, who is 2 years old. “I feel safe here. It’s a safe community, safer than Hot Springs, Little Rock or Pine Bluff.”
Neel is an Arkadelphia native, her mother having moved to the area as a child from Michigan after her father’s work affected his health in the 1970s.
SACD has had a positive effect on several families in the area, Gardner said. Asking a group of about 25 people involved in SACD (including homeowners and contractors) what the organization means to them, the responses varied from words like hope, faith, comfort, prosperity, employment, security and even growth for Clark County. “It shows that Arkadelphia can expand and be progressive,” said Bob Sanders, attorney for SACD.
A total of about 135 homeowners enrolled in the self-help program prior to building their home, Gardner said, and upwards to 400 families have been helped by SACD in some fashion. The organization has invested about $950,000 in property acquisition, building roads and infrastructure installation for Somersett alone.
The self-help housing program provides opportunities for mixed-income families to build homes and live among each other, with “covenants” in place to ensure that the neighborhoods remain tidy and property values increase rather than decrease. Those enrolled in the free program go through a homeowner’s class, which helps them better understand the work involved in owning and maintaining a home. Neel, as with others, will be responsible for taking care of unskilled labor such as painting, caulking, landscaping and cleaning up the property after contractors have finished.
Most homeowners, Gardner said, “just go to a (home) closing and sign” a contract without any knowledge of the responsibility in owning a home. For those homeowners who are dealing with problems such as foreclosure, there’s a class for that. SACD provides counseling for homeowners who have financial problems or other problems like attaining or improving credit. “We want people to know there is a tomorrow after a bad day,” Gardner said. “We can’t make the problem go away, but we can help you make it through it.” There is no bearing on age or income for taking the course. There are 25 slots for the program, eight of which are currently full and three applications are being processed. To qualify for the program, income guidelines in Clark County is less than $26,400 for a one-person family; $30,150 for a two-person family; $33,950 for a three-person family; and so on. To apply for the program or for more information on SACD, call 230-1717 or visit the office at 406 Clay St., across from the courthouse.
SACD also uses strict guidelines to make sure each home built is done so properly. “We have inspectors inspecting inspectors,” said Christie Bailey, housing director for SACD.
A cooperation of about 100 architects, plumbers, electricians and several other contractors, SACD is important to the economic prosperity of Clark County, said Dr. Lewis Shepherd, chair of SACD. “Housing got the economy the way it is now. It may be housing that gets us out of it,” he said, noting the economic importance of selling construction goods and services in the nation. “We have forever said that the American Dream is home ownership, but for so many years people have not been able to buy a home.”
In 1978, the federal minimum wage was $2.65 per hour, but it had the buying power of $7.20, Shepherd said. But, a quarter of a century later, in 2004, “that was not the case” as the federal minimum wage was $6.75 with a purchasing power of only $5.10.
Wages have gone up, he said, and the earning capacity of the labor force has been eroded by inflation. In the ‘70s, if both parents worked, the family had a “good lifestyle,” Shepherd said. “That doesn’t happen now. Home ownership is unrealistic for so many people.”
Because of SACD, though, Neel is able to live out what many call the American Dream.
After she attains her associate’s degree at Ouachita Technical College in Malvern, she plans to transfer to Henderson State and, for a career, become a teacher.
Gardner said she has noticed a positive change in Neel’s self-esteem since she first met with her about building a home. “She’s a citizen we want to keep” in the county.
Wiping tears from her eyes, Diana Neel added, “I’m a very proud momma. I’m proud of her, her determination. She said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I said, ‘Yes, you can.’ ... She’s just grown up over night.”
SACD has also kept several local contractors with jobs. From the dozens of people it takes to build a home to the people who decide to build a home, Gardner said it “takes everybody working together to build a community ... I’m proud, honored, to serve in this capacity in the community. It’s about creating safe neighborhoods and self-sufficient homeowners.”
Sara Neel said she only wishes to spread the word that building a home is possible for everyone, no matter the age or income. “I just wish people would realize that help is here.”