[Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

With its unfinished walls, dusty floors and bare-bones interior, the Hines family’s next home wasn’t staged for guests – especially not high-profile ones. But Vernita Dore didn’t seem to mind the construction-related mess.

The deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program marveled at each room’s possibilities – and even identified the perfect spot for a pool table – as she toured the site during a daylong visit to Moab on Monday, April 4.

USDA Rural Development Utah State Director Dave Conine brought Dore to town to recognize the work that the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah and local nonprofit Community Rebuilds are doing to address Moab’s affordable housing woes.

“I get to show off the programs that I’m so proud of, and what’s going on in Moab is so incredible,” Conine told the Moab Sun News. “And (Moab) has a national reputation now.”

Dore said she’s pleased to see affordable housing advocates like Community Rebuilds Executive Director Emily Niehaus serve Moab with the same philosophy that guides her agency’s mission to foster safe, healthy and prosperous rural communities.

“It’s more than just a job – it’s an opportunity to serve,” she said. “The work we do is what I call ‘worthy work.’”

The first stop on her tour took Dore to Wingate Avenue, where Chad and Kaitlin Thomas are building a straw-bale home with the help of Community Rebuilds and its interns. Later that afternoon, she set off to visit the four single-family homes that the housing authority is building on Murphy Lane, as well as the multi-family Cinema Court apartment complex on nearby Mill Creek Drive.

Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah Executive Director Ben Riley said the in-person visit will likely bolster her understanding of the statewide Rural Development program, allowing her to see the differences between Utah and other states with her own eyes. In addition, he said, it boosts the community’s profile at the national level.

“Any time we have somebody from Washington, D.C., come out to little old Moab, it’s a pretty big deal,” Riley said.

The new homes on Murphy Lane are funded through the USDA Rural Development’s Mutual-Self Help Program, which gives federal grants to organizations that help prospective homeowners who might not otherwise qualify for loans.

In the last fiscal year alone, Rural Development invested more than $501 million in rural Utah, with the bulk of that money going toward affordable housing programs. It also continued to connect residents with the resources that can help them bring their dreams to fruition.

“We’re letting people know what’s available to them,” Dore said. “We don’t come into a community and tell people what they need.”

If those people followed a more conventional path toward home ownership, Dore estimates that it would probably take them 20 years to build the same kind of equity for their families.

But through the involvement of organizations like the housing authority and Community Rebuilds, homeowners can settle into their new lives within a matter of months.

Community Rebuilds works with qualified applicants to line up low-interest loans, and with the help of student interns, builds energy-efficient, earth-friendly and sturdy straw-bale homes at about half the average cost.

The group’s 15th and newest home on Wingate Avenue replaced a dilapidated trailer in an otherwise established neighborhood of mostly stick-built homes.

“The Realtor said it was not in the best of shape,” Chad Thomas said.

That’s an understatement, to say the least.

According to Thomas, no one had lived inside the trailer since 1992, and it was “kind of” condemned by the time they bought the property it sat on.

That might not have bothered Thomas so much in the past: He did, after all, live inside a cave in the “middle of nowhere” for two years. But now that he has a family, Thomas said he feels squeezed into a 700-square-foot rental, and he can’t wait to move into their new straw-bale home some time in mid-July.

“It’s less than 1,000 square feet, but it feels like a football field because it’s so efficiently designed,” he said.

South of town on Murphy Lane, Brian Hines and his family have a similar story to tell.

Hines’ job as a fish biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources brought him to Moab, and although his family grew tired of renting, they had few choices to buy or build their own home in the community.

“Trying to find a place that was within our budget was hard,” he said.

Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi encouraged the family to consult with the housing authority; their resolve only strengthened after they talked to Leslie and Chad Allred, who moved into the housing authority’s Deer Trail townhomes last year.

“This was basically one of our only options in Moab,” Hines said.

Riley estimates that it would typically cost about $260,000 to $270,000 to build each home on the Murphy Lane property, although the housing authority was able to do the job for about $170,000 apiece – including the costs to buy the land.

To ensure that the families can continue to live in their homes, the housing authority designs them as efficiently as possible, thereby reducing their monthly utility bills. As couples continue to have more children, Riley said they have the freedom to reconfigure the layouts of their homes.

“They’re for families to grow inside,” he said.

For Community Rebuilds interns, the skills they learn on the job often remain in the community, as they start their own businesses or join others to build on their experiences with the group.

Intern Abby Hafey of Portland, Maine, said the internship gave her the chance to break into the male-dominated construction world.

“You really don’t have a lot of opportunities as a female,” she told Dore.

Former Community Rebuilds intern-turned-apprentice Will Munger already had a background in conventional construction projects when he joined the group. But he told Dore that his internship gave him new insights into sustainable building, and he now puts that expertise to use by teaching the latest class of interns.

Thomas said that he and his family are excited to see everything come together at their home, thanks to the work of everyone from Munger and Niehaus on down to interns like Hafey.

“They’re a great bunch of folks – every last one of them,” Thomas said. “I’m so grateful – beyond words grateful. I can’t even express it. They’re helping us build our future.”

For Dore, that’s the kind of spirit that ultimately inspires her office and its mission.

“They’re serving not only with their heads, but their hearts,” she said.

Housing authority, Community Rebuilds earn kudos from Rural Development official

Any time we have somebody from Washington, D.C., come out to little old Moab, it’s a pretty big deal.

For more information about the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah, call 435-259-5891. To learn more about Community Rebuilds, go to: communityrebuilds.org, or call 435-260-0501.