Families begin building their own houses at Riverview Estates

Two groups of 12 families start on a year-long project. 

On Jan. 8, a dozen families gathered together in a lot on Southside Road to pick up a few new skills. Armed with hammers and power drills, they were on their way to learning everything they would need to know to build a house.

“We are working on a lot of basic construction techniques,” said Sonny Flores of the Community Services Development Corporation (CSDC), “teaching the families everything from hammering a nail and removing a nail to using saws and tape measures. Some of the people here have never swung a hammer before, but today, they actually built a wall and then took it apart.”

Sonny Flores at Riverview. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sonny Flores at Riverview. Photo by Robert Eliason.

In a month, 12 more families will join them, and together they will be building 24 houses from the ground up. When they have finished the work, they will move into the housing development they created: Riverview Estates II.

The development is part of an ongoing effort by the CSDC to help low-income families in their search for permanent housing. Referred to as a “mutual self-help program,” each family will work on all 24 houses, and nobody will move into a home until all are completed. It’s the first self-help project in Hollister supervised by the CSDC, but over 350 self-help homes have been built in the city by the South County Housing Authority over the last 20 years.

The current group of 24 families was chosen by lot from 741 applicants. The program is open to low- and very low-income families, earning a maximum of 80% of the medium income. For a family of four, very low yearly income is a maximum of $51,000 and low yearly income is a maximum of $81,600. The families must have a credit score of at least 640, which they must maintain. 

The families are allowed a “sweat equity” down payment, essentially a discount on their home loan, acknowledging their work commitment. They are also eligible for no-money-down 1%-2.5% interest loans with a term of 33 or 38 years, depending on their income status. 

Learning to saw. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Learning to saw. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Each family is expected to put in 40 hours of work per week, with the head of the household responsible for 16 of those hours. They are allowed to get help from up to five volunteers. Contractors are hired to do the more skilled work, such as pouring concrete or installing the wiring.

“They work from home to home,” said Flores. “They will start framing the first house and then go through the various phases of that job. When they have finished framing one house, they go on to the next, so the contractors come in to do their work on that house.”

While a professional construction crew can build a tract like Riverview Estates in three to six months, Flores estimates that it will take the families 12 to 13 months to complete all the houses. 

Andrea Ayala-Avila, 21, and her family already have their lot picked out at Riverview Estates, a muddy patch of ground with a barely framed out foundation at what, next year, will be 3121 Dennis Lalor Lane. She comes to construction with no previous experience at all.

“The only building I ever did before was with Lego blocks,” Ayala-Avila said. “That is very different from doing what we did today. I got to use a saw, which I had never done before in my life. The training today was an awesome experience.”

For Ayala-Avila and her family, owning their own home at Riverview Estates has a special significance, as they lived in the migrant housing center on the hill above the development for three years. 

“We were super excited when we saw our names on the listing for the houses,” she said. “We are going to be working hard, but it is for a better future.”

Over the next year, BenitoLink will be following the progress of the Riverview Estates project and posting regular updates. 


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.