The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Helping vulnerable kids & families succeed

Community Change

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Tri-County Community Action Committee

Building Community Brick by Brick

(c) 2004 Carol Highsmith

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When Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee opened its doors in 1966, many residents of Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties lived in shacks without electricity or running water. Providing affordable housing quickly became the cornerstone in a roster of Tri-County programs that have focused on economic opportunities for low-income families for almost 40 years.

Over 500 families have realized the American dream of home ownership through Tri-County's pioneering Mutual Self-Help Housing. Contributing 1,000 hours each of “sweat equity” under a construction supervisor, families work together in groups to build their homes. In the process, they form networks of supportive neighbors and build equity they can then use to achieve educational and other goals. Some participants have even parleyed their new skills into good jobs in the construction trades. Following a different avenue to home ownership, families can purchase a house that Tri-County has bought and rehabbed with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This innovative program has kept over 700 units of existing housing stock within the reach of low-income families.

Families start on Tri-County's path to home ownership in a financial literacy program, where they meet with a financial counselor monthly to clean up credit and create a financial plan. When they complete the program, they can apply for low-interest mortgages, based on family income, with interest rates as low as one percent. County governments, faith-based organizations and even private developers support Tri-County's programs because they see the positive impact.

“I wanted my kids to have a better life and Tri-County was there to give me a helping hand.”

Sandra Hunter, mother of two and homeowner through Self-Help Housing

“When you have families working side by side to build each other's homes,” says Dana Jones, Tri-County's president and CEO, “it creates a strong community.”

Building a Dream from the Ground Up

All her life, Sandra Hunter dreamed of having a house. When she was a young girl, her family's house burned down. The landlord gave them shelter in an abandoned dance club nearby. For years, the family lived in the club without running water and only a wood-burning stove to heat the building. Hunter, now 40 and working as an accounts clerk, was determined to build a better life for her two sons. As they approached adolescence, the family's two-bedroom apartment felt crowded. For five years, Hunter searched the Tri-county area but could not find a house she could afford. Then a friend told her about Self-Help Housing.

Working shoulder-to-shoulder with five other families, Hunter built her dream home from the ground up. For a year, Hunter and her new neighbors spent every weekend digging foundations, laying floors, setting walls and painting the houses under the watchful eye of the program's site supervisor. “I am not a hands-on person,” Hunter laughs, recalling the hard labor. “I still can't believe I was hammering nails in the floor and setting up walls, but I feel so proud that I did this for my boys.”

(c) 2004 Carol Highsmith

Media usage: Download high-resolution photo.

The Long Haul

Home ownership is the ultimate goal for many Tri-County families, but additional programs help them increase their income and build their assets. One Tri-County course trains parents to earn a commercial driver's license so they can qualify for jobs as bus and truck drivers, often doubling their wages. To strengthen educational credentials, parents can take classes that prepare them for their GED exams and community college. As an incentive for long-term savings, Tri-County matches deposits in Individual Development Accounts three to one. Services ranging from Head Start to companion programs for seniors help working parents meet their family responsibilities.

“We are using the American dream of home ownership to create equity for future generations – for college, for skill development and for family stability.”

Dana M. Jones
President and CEO

As Tri-County encourages families to invest for the future, it does the same for the community. Tri-County's advocacy has resulted in state and county policies that benefit low-income families. “This is about so much more than bricks and mortar,” says Dana Jones. “We're in this for the long haul.”

For more information, see www.smtccac.org.