On the edge of Prince Frederick, just inside the town limits, sit 46 plots of land. They may not yet look like much, but the recent construction on a handful of the lots is tangible evidence of dreams becoming reality.
This is the dream of home ownership, and making it possible is the nonprofit Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee based in Hughesville. For more than 20 years, the local organization has administered a federal "self-help housing" program that has made it possible for about 450 low-income families to build homes in Southern Maryland's rural areas.
Its latest effort to ease the affordable housing crunch is taking shape in the new Calvert County development named Yardley Hills. Since December, eight families have been working together for 25 to 35 hours a week to help build one another's homes.
In about a year, each family will own a home and pay a mortgage subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development office. The development ultimately will have 46 owner-occupied homes and 100 rental units.
"There's nowhere else in the county or nationwide, for that matter, where a person making $18,000 a year can become a homeowner," said Debbie Gass, the self-help housing program director. "We're here serving those families who deserve housing just like anyone else."
Scattered throughout Southern Maryland are multiple neighborhoods created under this program. In western Charles County, construction supervisor Jay Rush is gearing up to start the final group of houses in the Brawner's Estates development. The Bryans Road neighborhood off Route 210 will have 101 homes after the last eight units are completed.
Progress has been slow during the winter months, Rush said, because there are fewer evening daylight hours. The participants also work regular jobs, so they rely heavily on the weekends for longer stretches of labor. No one moves in until all the homes are finished, he said.
"Everybody gets to learn a lot," he said. "We all just have to pull together. As long as it's fun, it's easy."
Gass currently is recruiting applicants for future building groups in Yardley Hills and the final cluster of homes in Brawner's Estates. To qualify, applicants must have good credit, a low debt load, ability to work a certain number of hours each week on the homes and have an annual income of approximately $18,000 or more, she said.
The Tri-County Community Action Committee does not have any projects in progress in St. Mary's County right now, Gass said. The program has funded about 150 units there, and she is searching for affordable lots to continue aiding families who otherwise might lack a secure place to call home.
"It's just stability for their entire family," she said. "They take a lot of pride in their houses."
Families interested in the program can call Debbie Gass at 301-274-4474, Ext. 262 or 210.