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Self-Help Workers in St. Helena Build Their Own Homes

ST. HELENA (KPIX) -- A self-help housing project in St Helena is building homes for lower-income families in one of the most expensive communities in the Bay Area. It's also showing that there are some rewards that money can't buy.

Just steps from downtown St. Helena, the property on McCorkle Avenue could have been a wealthy person's vacation home. Instead, a group of townhouses called "Brenkle Court" will be a shot at a new life for eight working-class families. Make no mistake --it is no gift.

"I told 'em at the beginning: forget about vacations -- no vacations," said project manager Larry Vermeulen.

The retired builder said most of the self-help homebuilders working at Brenkle Court had zero experience coming in. The families are working on all eight homes at the same time and, since they are all identical, when workers learn a new building skill on one, it can be applied to the next seven houses.

"It's taken a lot of bent nails. When we started out we were pulling out as many nails as we were putting in," Vermeulen said. "At this point we're pretty good at nailing."

The commitment is remarkable. Families must work at least 32 hours per week and they have been doing so since July, 2019 -- that's 69 straight weekends without a break.

"Since they all have full-time jobs it means they're working their other job and then coming here and working two full days," said Vermeulen.

On Saturday, many of the men were absent, working their winery jobs -- no days off during harvest -- so their wives were at the site, pulling double-duty.

Ana Martinez is no stranger to hard work but even she wondered if this would be possible.

"I said, oh maybe, maybe no. It's a big dream ... I can do it!" she said with a smile.

Martinez has now mastered cutting lumber and framing walls but, despite their sweat equity, the homeowners will still be responsible for the remaining costs of the project -- about $400,000 for each house.

"This is not a giveaway," said Vermeulen. "These folks are on the hook to pay back this money. It's a mortgage. They've signed up for the duration."

But they will own a home in St. Helena, something they couldn't otherwise have managed on their $40,000 to 60,000 family incomes. And with it will come a renewed sense of what's possible in life.

"I think for all of our families, that first home has been the step to making the next step up the ladder," Vermeulen said. "That's really what we're trying to do here."

For Ana Martinez, even a COVID-19 face mask couldn't hide her pride when she imagined the day her home is finally finished.

"I'll say 'Oh! This is my house!' It's just completing my dream."

The project is organized by a non-profit called "Our Town St. Helena" and is funded by a grant from the USDA to help rural communities. The city of St. Helena purchased the land for $700,000 and sold it to the non-profit for $1. They need to finish the complex by June 2021 but the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the ranks of volunteers from the public. If you would like to help there's more information at:


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