The street of dreams comes true
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:11 PM
"To most people, community-building is a metaphor. For the residents-to-be of Strawberry Place, it's a hands-on reality.They are both the owners and the builders of nine Bainbridge Island homes made affordable by their own efforts. And before they could build houses, they had to build a team, because the rule is that nobody moves in until all the houses are finished.We're a family, said Laura Harrison, a single mother who works as a medical assistant. We have to pull together.They are building the single-family, two-story homes under the self-help program of the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority. Participants in the program do most of the construction work themselves, putting in a minimum of 30 hours a week under the tutelage and supervision of master carpenter Del Sutton, a KCCHA employee. It's not that hard to build a house, Harrison said. It's repetitive, and you have to get over your fear of power tools.Getting into the projectStrawberry Place is a new street immediately south of Rotary Park on Weaver Avenue. The program was made possible when Kelly Samson, who developed the adjacent Weaver Creek subdivision, met his mandated affordable-housing requirement by selling nine lots to the city at below-market rates.The housing authority's first task was to put together nine owner-builders who could meet the program's rigorous standards.While their income had to be less than a set threshold - under $35,000 for a family of three, with less than $7,500 in liquid assets - the applicants needed job stability and excellent credit.And they had to be willing to give 30 hours a week to construction, on top of their jobs and without vacations.We were married a month before we started, and we couldn't take a honeymoon, said Claudine McCormick, a Bainbridge medical office manager. She and husband Brady, a shipwright in Seattle, were among the first applicants for the program in early 1999.The waiting was the most frustrating part, she said. Once we started the paper trail, our lives were on hold.Hammering, Sawing 101The group was assembled in October 1999, and faced the first challenge - learning how to be carpenters. The Bainbridge group started farther ahead than most, Sutton said, because three of them already had construction experience.The hardest thing for beginners, Sutton said, is learning to pound 16-penny nails. You have to teach them to take a big enough swing.With the foundations poured by a subcontractor, the owner-builders began framing the houses last November, in the mud and the rain.It was so wet that we'd put down big pieces of plywood to stand on, and they would sink into the mud, said Jack Inslee, who works as a carpenter on the island. When you weren't on the boards, you sank in up to your knees.Inslee, whose expertise turned him into an informal foreman, said that the learning curve was fairly steep.In the beginning, people would cut a board six or seven times, but they would get it right, he said.The fact that the builders would actually occupy the homes was a strong motivator towards good work, Inslee said.In the carpenter world, you sometimes hear people say, 'you can't see it from my house' about a mistake. But there was none of that here, because we'll all see the mistakes from our own houses.While Inslee said the work is up to professional standards, the job-site wasn't quite so well equipped.What's amazing to me is that we've built nine 1,000-square-foot plus homes with two Skil saws, three ladders and one level, he said.The group contracted out work requiring special expertise or licensing, such as plumbing and electrical work, and also work where warranties were involved, such as siding. But even there, they controlled the process, getting bids according to county procurement standards, then selecting the subcontractors.Like the subcontractors, the owner-builders themselves work on all of the houses, not just their own.Sutton keeps an assignment board in the headquarters trailer with a list of jobs that need to be done. When each owner shows up for his or her work hours, they start with the list of tasks on the board.Sutton agreed with Inslee that while there might have been a few more false starts, the ultimate work quality was at least as good as a professional job.It's equal or better. We take our time to do it right, and maybe even over-nail, he said.Small homes, cozy homesThe 1,250-square foot houses are cozy but functional. Each has three bedrooms and a bath upstairs, a kitchen open to a living room/dining room and a full bath on the main floor, and a one-car garage.While the yards are on the small side, there are additional lots on each end of the street that will become common park areas.By spring, the individuals were beginning to specialize in the construction tasks they did best. Your strengths tend to fit you into your niche, said participant Sam Pennoyer, who works for a Bainbridge Island interior design and finishing firm. I don't mind heights, so I do most of the painting.After the roofing was done by a combination of subcontractors and the owners, most of the work moved inside, where the owners began to experience frustrations known to anyone who has ever waited for a new home to be completed.The finish work is tedious, particularly waiting for the contractors, island bank worker Cathalina Bothell said. And if you make a mistake in the finishing work, you can really tell. Almost ready to move inBut the end is in sight. The official schedule still calls for completion in time for an Oct. 14 open house, with move-in to follow. Sutton is dubious, knowing how construction schedules can slip. But he is highly optimistic that the residents can move in by the holidays.The residents have all qualified for open-market bank loans for the homes. The homes will be priced for loan purposes at roughly $135,000 - the actual cost to KCCHA of the land, the building materials, the sub-contractor charges and a portion of Sutton's salary.The homes will have an estimated market value of roughly $205,000. The $70,000 difference between cost and market value will be divided between the original owner-builders, if and when they sell, and KCCHA.The owners will repay KCCHA $40,000, plus a portion of the increase in market value between occupancy and sale, but will retain the remainder, representing both the value of their work and the increase in market value. This wasn't just a handout, Pennoyer said. The faint-hearted need not apply.The Strawberry Place participants have all made personal sacrifices of one sort or another. There's no way to maintain two households between this and our jobs, Claudine McCormick said. The place we're living in now is a pigsty.For Tricia Chilton, a medical assistant at the Winslow Virginia Mason clinic and a single mother, the sacrifice was far more serious - temporary separation from her 12-year-old son Erik.It's more difficult to be a mother while you're doing this, she said, but I didn't think I'd have to let my family take Erik.Chilton has no doubts, though, about whether the benefits outweigh the burdens.I've been on the island since 1991 and always rented, she said. I've tried to buy for two years, but was unable to qualify. This means everything to me, to have a home for my child to grow up in.The participants agree that without the self-help program, a new home on Bainbridge Island wasn't a likely prospect. But that's not all they're getting.They point to the advantages of getting to know each and their families.We already have our babysitter picked out, said Claudine McCormick, referring to a neighbor's 9-year-old daughter.By the time our kids start coming along, she'll be the perfect age.Then there's the intangible benefit of gaining a new respect for everyone's abilities, including their own.It's amazing to me to see her strap on the tool belt and swing at a 16-penny nail, Sam Pennoyer said of his wife Julie.You know what has to be done, and sometimes you're a little intimidated, but you do it anyway, Chilton said. And then you find out that you can. "