How Project Neighbors Does It

Project Neighbors builds “affordable housing,” a term I dislike because its definition changes with the person using the term.

I use it to mean housing made available for rent or purchase at about 60% of existing market rates. It still may not be affordable to some families, but then other efforts are put into play.

This blog is about HOW we produce the housing.

Project Neighbors

We start with purchasing relatively inexpensive ground. We seek out superficially unappealing lots: in the run-down part of town, near railroad tracks, recently burned-out structures. And we seek land zoned to allow duplexes.

My rule of thumb has been to spend no more that $15,000 per unit of housing for land, meaning no more that $30,000 for a lot on which to build a duplex. Recent inflation has made this no longer possible.

The next step is to design a house (or duplex) which is attractive, simple to build, preferable one story, and lacking many features which are not necessary, like multiple baths, garages, and luxury amenities such as marble counters. I try to mimic the 1200 square foot houses built in the 1950s, but with a more effort put into outward appearance.

Every house will have three bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, laundry, one bathroom, utility room. Depending on the lot, a basement may be part of the plans.

Then I go to the bank. Project Neighbors borrows the money to fund the purchase of materials and some labor. Prior to the recent dramatic inflation, $80,000 to $90,000 per unit was adequate to fund a project.

Subcontractors are hired to excavate, pour the foundation, and frame the building. These subs are informed of our mission, our tax-exempt status, and are asked to contribute by reducing their fees. I have found subs to be willing to make this kind on small contribution. 

When they have completed their work, we pay them very promptly, providing motivation to keep working for Project Neighbors.

Then the magic starts.

Roofing, siding, detail framing, and some mechanical work is done by volunteers managed by an experienced construction manager. These two resources – the volunteers and the experienced construction manage are essential to achieve “affordability.” 

While the mechanicals of a house – plumbing, HVAC, and electrical – require a licensed tradesperson, we hire that tradesperson, but blend his or her services with volunteer labor to reduce costs. For example, our electrician sets the service panel, but volunteers run all the wire to outlets and switches, the bulk of the electrician’s work.

After mechanicals, all the work is done by volunteers: insulation, hanging and taping drywall, painting, trim, floor covering, and landscaping. 

Managing the volunteers is a demanding and extremely rewarding role. The next blog will detail this role.

Paul Schreiner