Helping Families Help Themselves

by | Nov 2, 2015 | Features

Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz said it best when she said: “there’s no place like home.” While home can be a place of refuge, love, memories and recharging, it can also be a burden for some. Universal Housing Development in Russellville exists to make home desirable and accessible by making resources, opportunities and funds available.
The 501-CE non-profit organization and HUD approved counseling agency began in October of 1971. “The executive director at the time worked for ARVAC Inc., which was social service,” said Pat Atkinson, executive director. “They were not doing anything with housing. He and the executive director of ARVAC got together and made an agreement that Joe Miller would break off from ARVAC and focus on housing. He started packaging loans for Rural Development and went from that to a weatherization program.”
Not wasting any time, by 1980 the ambitious bunch had built 50 units of HUD-202 apartments for elderly and handicapped on South Detroit in Russellville. They also built 24 units of USDA Rural Development apartments in Paris that were multi-faceted in their utilization.
“I started in 1981. I have two daughters, and when the youngest went to school I wasn’t sure what to do so I went to business college. My neighbor worked for ARVAC Housing Development Corporation and told me about an opening as a secretary and bookkeeper in the self-help housing section. I interviewed and was offered the job,” said Atkinson. “Being number 12 of 15 kids in my family, I knew I could handle anything,” she added.
When the project director at the time, Rick Price, decided to pursue new opportunities the executive director offered Atkinson the job. With some hesitation she accepted the position that served as a pivotal point in her career. “The longer I worked there, the more hours I found myself working and loved the job. The executive director told me what I was doing at that time was basically the job I would be doing as project director, so I accepted the offer. It was his encouragement that helped me make the decision,” recalled Atkinson. Serving in that position for 23 years, it was 2004 when Atkinson made another shift in the organization. This time to a position she felt like she had been groomed for: executive director.
Balancing work and life is a difficult task for most anyone, and Atkinson credits having a husband who was willing to help out so much and parents who lived nearby that enabled her to devote so much time to her successful  career doing what she loved — helping people.
Universal Housing Development has a very broad range of services and resources available. It serves a total of nine counties in Arkansas, and all out of the office in Russellville with a total of just 20-something employees.
A popular self-help program is the self-help new construction funded by USDA Rural Development. The service aids clients with the financial and organizational side of building a home start to finish. “We are on a two-year cycle grant. In the two-year grant we said we would build 36 homes. In 1981 we were doing 48 homes in two years,” said Atkinson.
The timeline for building one home spans about a year from start to finish. During that time, Universal Housing walks the client through and assists in filling out applications and submitting them to Rural Development for funding — the organization that actually makes the loans — getting the homes completed to USDA guidelines, and finding and purchasing property. Clients are able to select from numerous house plans — the most popular is the three bedroom two bathroom house with a double garage — or pay to have their own drawn up.
In an effort to conserve funds, the soon-to-be homeowners put in a lot of sweat equity that can be done by friends, family, volunteers or just themselves. “The families are the contractors on these jobs. Subcontractors are hired for technical things such as framing, plumbing and electric — things the families can’t do,” said Atkinson.
Income, county and the amount of people in your family determine the amount of the 33-year Rural Development loan clients receive. “Maybe one out of every five applicants is approved. However, that’s part of us being a housing counseling agency. Also, we can work with them and improve their credit and get them approved,” said Atkinson.
“They have to pay at least one percent rate of interest. Depending on income, they could be paying one percent and then receiving assistance on the difference between the 1 percent and whatever the interest rate was when you closed your loan. Some people can criticize the payment assistance, but it is not meant to be forever. Especially families just starting out, they work themselves off the assistance, usually within five years, and then they will be making full payment,” explained Atkinson.
“When I started in 1981, the average client’s loan was $18,000-$20,000, land included. Now $98,500 is where loans are capped,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson believes this kind of opportunity allows someone to move up. “Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes. And that’s what it is, a hand up, not a hand out,” she added.
A second kind of self-help program Universal Housing offers is self-help rehab, which specializes in updating older homes that are not suitable or livable. This program is typically funded through a grant.
“We work with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas to do grants up to $5,000 a year. For example, if we have someone apply and get approved by SNAP (Special Needs Assistance Program), and they need a new roof, most of the time a roof is going to take all of the $5,000. Say they have issues with their windows and need to remodel a bathroom to where it’s accessible. We can come back next year with the same client in the same program and get rest of their needs met,” said Atkinson.
Universal Housing walks their clients through this process the same way they do for new construction, making this easy to utilize regardless of knowledge base. “We are a NeighborWorks organization and receive funds from them that we can leverage with our other rehab programs to give grants,” said Atkinson. “Rural Development also has a 504 program that can be a grant or a loan. If someone’s income is a little higher the loans are affordable. We do the paperwork and process applications for the 504. We walk everyone through everything and even manage subcontractors for them.”
“Anything pertaining to housing we do. We have rental assistance through HUD. Another one that seems too good to be true is our IDA (Individual Development Account) program through the Department of Workforce. The income guidelines are not as strict as self-help new construction, but you have to have a child under 18 in the household and a purpose — such as building a house, rehab on a house, education. It has a three to one match, meaning that for every dollar we will match it with three through a savings account. They have to open a savings account and will hopefully deposit $10 a month until they reach $666 which we then match with $2,000 per adult.”
Offering so much to the community, it can be easy to hear about these services and assume they are too good to be true or that you might not qualify. But Atkinson encourages community members to let her staff determine someone’s eligibility before counting themselves out.
It is obvious from the moment Atkinson begins explaining all that Universal Housing Development does that her passion is part of what has kept her there for so many years. “I love helping people. Like I said, I come from a large family from eastern Arkansas, cotton fields… I know rough times. I know how hard just getting by can be. I don’t think people should just have to get by, and with a little bit of assistance I think they can get a boost up. Owning a new home builds equity quicker than anything,” said Atkinson.
If what Universal Housing Development is doing excites you and you would like to learn about volunteer opportunities, or you think you could benefit from their services, you can reach them at 479-968-5001.

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