This land will soon be home to 14 single-family homes—built by the families who will live in them. Credit: Melissa Daniels

Just a few blocks from Palm Desert High School, a vacant stretch of land sits sandwiched between two rows of single-family ranch homes. Mountain views can be seen to the west. Nearby Cook Street serves as a main artery that makes it easy to head toward the center of town.

By 2024, this will be the site of 14 Coachella Valley families’ brand-new homes, thanks to the Self-Help Housing Program, a new partnership between Coachella Valley Housing Coalition and the city of Palm Desert that aims to chip away at the affordable-housing crisis.

This “urban self-help project” aims to rehouse low-income families by bringing them together to build a neighborhood of brand-new homes under the watch of a construction supervisor. Payments will be fixed to 30% of the household income, so the families’ finances won’t be stretched.

CVHC executive director Pedro Rodriguez calls it a much-needed program at a time when housing costs are at an all-time high: The local median home price hit a record of $670,000 this June.

“Currently, the housing market is through the roof,” Rodriguez said. “Low-income and even low-to-moderate-income people are not able to qualify for a market-rate home. It’s just so expensive.”

The self-help program has been part of CVHC’s mission for decades, with about 2,500 self-help homes created throughout the region. But getting this latest round off the ground in Palm Desert didn’t come easy. Rodriguez said that the rural self-help program, a staple of CVHC’s affordable-housing offerings, backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is only available in cities with fewer than 35,000 people—which means most of the Coachella Valley is not eligible. Those rural programs, backed by the USDA, are still in operation in the cities of Brawley and Imperial in Imperial County, Rodriguez said.

There are limits to the program: Applicants must include a household member who works within the city limits, and there are strict credit guidelines and household-income requirements. A family of four, for example, must have a household income of less than $63,200. The applicant also must commit to 35 hours a week of working on the homes for a period of one year.

Palm Desert conveyed the parcels to CVHC in May 2020, The loans will be privately backed, rather than through the USDA. CVHC and the city will also subsidize the loans if the families cannot qualify for the full amount—about $270,000 for the three- or four-bedroom homes.

“It requires a lot of support from the cities,” Rodriguez said. “Cities need to say, ‘This is a piece of land to donate,’ to try to make it work.”

As amazing as this program is, it will only help 14 families. The reality is that for the vast majority of renters, homeownership remains incredibly out of reach.

Thomas Soule, the city of Palm Desert’s public affairs manager, said that affordable housing plays “an essential role in Palm Desert’s ongoing work to build a strong and vibrant community by providing quality, stable places for families to live.”

The hope is that families will begin to work on the plots of land by the fall, with the homes taking about a year to complete. So far, there are 11 families who have qualified under the income and occupancy guidelines.

As amazing as this program is, it will only help 14 families. The reality is that for the vast majority of renters, homeownership remains incredibly out of reach. For many working families, rent is costing as much as half of their monthly income, which means saving up to buy a home is impossible—unless there’s a sudden windfall from a benevolent relative. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition in November 2021 found that Riverside County renters would need to work 1.9 full-time jobs at the county renters’ mean wage of $14.30 to afford a rent of $1,390—which, in the Coachella Valley right now, limits your options to a studio or maybe a small one-bedroom.

But if families can escape that cycle with affordable single-family homes, it means stability and generational wealth. Rodriguez said he’s seen the power that the self-help program can have when talking to families who grew up in the homes.

“Some of these kids from low-income families go on to college and become professionals, and it’s life changing,” Rodriguez said. “And the fact their parents built the house—that’s an incredible accomplishment they carry with them.”

Melissa Daniels

Melissa Daniels is a writer and digital media consultant who has called the Coachella Valley home since 2019. She's originally from Rochester, N.Y., and spent several years covering state government and...