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Bonamici visits site of restoration, which is supported by CAT, USDA



SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (right), D-Ore., talks to Jason and Jessica Smith outside the home on North 10th Street that they are restoring. The Smiths, who live in St. Helens, are participants in a federal housing rehabilitation program geared toward low-income families in rural areas.Until a few months ago, the house on the southeast corner of North 10th and West streets was one of the many vacant buildings in the St. Helens area.

Now, it's being transformed into a new home for a young family.

Jason and Jessica Smith said they have been working 30 hours per week since April, with the help of family, friends and the local nonprofit Community Action Team Inc., to restore the house after it was trashed by squatters and damaged by fire.

The couple has been living, along with their two children, in what they called a “tiny, tiny” apartment in town. They decided they wanted to live in a house and began searching for options.

Jason Smith said they first looked into Habitat for Humanity, which works with low-income families to build houses, but there were no availabilities. And then they found out about the Self-Help program for housing rehabilitation.

The program is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's stable of rural development initiatives. Jill Rees, a USDA community and economic development coordinator, said the department provides grant funding locally to CAT, which is administering the housing rehabilitation project in St. Helens.

“The idea is to help folks in rural areas enter homeownership, so they can build wealth and assets and a sustainable future,” Rees said.

“And it helps the community,” Jason Smith added.

Jim Tierney, CAT's executive director, described the work on the Smith house as part of a “pilot project” for Self-Help, restoring an existing building instead of building a new one.

“This is one of our three or four projects we have going right now,” Tierney said.

The Smiths were able to secure a low-interest loan through the USDA to finance their purchase of the $76,000 house, as well as restore it with the assistance of CAT through the Self-Help program.

They hope to move in later this summer.

The house exceeds their expectations for what they expected to get, Jason Smith said. Instead of three bedrooms, it has four; it has two bathrooms; it is surrounded by an expansive yard.

“I like the character,” he added.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Jessica Smith (left) and her husband Jason show Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, their congresswoman, around the house in north St. Helens that they are working to restore.Jason Smith works at the Jackpot Market in Scappoose. Jessica Smith works at Midway Veterinary Hospital in Warren. The “sweat equity” they are putting into the house — a requirement of the program — has to be configured around 40-hour workweeks for both of them.

It's safe to say their hard work has not gone unnoticed.

Their congresswoman, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, visited the house and got a tour from the Smiths on Friday, June 19, during a swing through the St. Helens area.

“It's so exciting that Jason and Jessica have a home and a place for their kids to grow up,” she said after seeing each under-construction room. “And it's wonderful that the USDA and other partners, Community Action, are able to make this happen for families. They're learning a lot in the process, and then they will have not only a home that they put their sweat equity into, but an investment.”

Bonamici said she has been an advocate in Congress for low-income housing.

“Low-income housing is so important for family stability … and this is a great idea, instead of starting from scratch, to renovate a home,” she said. “It's good for the neighborhood, as well as for the family.”

The USDA's rural development services have been a boon to other St. Helens-area families as well, according to Tierney. He said many of the newer houses in the neighborhood were likely built with what are called Section 502 loans, which have variable interest rates geared toward people at lower income levels.

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