The Genesis of SHE: Mutual Self-Help Housing

The Genesis of SHE: Mutual Self-Help Housing

Posted on February 29, 2024

This year, as we enter our sixtieth year of serving the San Joaquin Valley, Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) takes a moment to reflect on our humble beginnings and the journey that has led us to become a beacon of hope for low-income families. SHE emerged in 1965 with a singular focus: to uplift the lives of local farmworkers trapped in the cycle of poverty and inadequate housing. Our pioneering Mutual Self-Help Housing program symbolized the dawn of a new era, where community empowerment and shared labor became the cornerstone of our mission. 

“It is difficult for me to express in words what it means to me and my family to be able to see our own home being built. It is beyond any dreams. The problems have been many and the hours long, but the feeling of having something of our own helps to make me forget the years of helplessness and depressed feelings. I believe that with faith in God and by people working together hand in hand we can accomplish whatever we want. We don’t want anything handed to us, we just want an opportunity to work with our hands and pull ourselves out of the situation we are in.” – Mrs. Salvador Gutierrez | Richgrove, California | 1966

The roots of organized mutual self-help homebuilding as a national program trace back to the poor community of Goshen in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) staff member Bard McAllister worked alongside farm workers and routinely asked them about their dreams and hopes. Universally, the answer was that they wanted decent homes for themselves and their children, yet low-income families, especially those of farmworkers, did not have access to conventional mortgages. In 1961, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) Section 502 loans to nonfarm rural citizens. For those in the rural areas of California, this provided a source for mortgage financing.  

McAllister applied the owner-builder model and began working with three farmworker families in Goshen who would build their homes under a new concept that was later to become known as mutual self-help where families come together to construct each other’s homes. Howard Washburn, a construction contractor living in the hills above Fresno, who would later become Self-Help Enterprises’ first CEO, heard about the project and volunteered his skills. The local AFSC secured the grants and underwrote the loans necessary to purchase land and pay for construction supervision. In 1963, ground was broken on the group of three houses in Goshen. This was followed by an additional group in Goshen and a third in Cutler.  

On January 21, 1965, a small group gathered in the City of Exeter to adopt articles of Incorporation and By-Laws, becoming the first Self-Help Enterprises Board of Directors. On February 5, 1965, Self-Help Enterprises was incorporated as the first rural self-help housing organization in the nation with Howard Washburn as its CEO.  Just weeks later, the U.S. Office of Economy Opportunity awarded a self-help housing grant to the newly formed organization. 

Since that first decade, SHE’s program offerings have evolved and expanded, but our commitment to fostering healthy homes and communities remains unwavering. Our Mutual Self-Help Housing program, which to date has empowered over 6,500 families to achieve the dream of homeownership, stands as a testament to the transformative power of collective effort. As we look back and celebrate the success of our original self-help housing focus, we acknowledge that our journey is far from over. The need for affordable housing remains, and we are committed to this effort through our current Mutual Self-Help Housing program. 

With the Mutual Self-Help Housing program, groups of families collaborate under skilled supervision to construct their homes in less than a year, contributing a minimum of 40 hours per week per family. These labor hours serve as the down payment, significantly reducing the cost of the home. The organization also assists participants in securing necessary loans, making the homes financially accessible. With energy-efficient features and various floor plans, families not only build their homes but also cultivate a sense of community through collective effort, ensuring that no family moves in until all homes are completed. This program embodies the spirit of hard work and investment, empowering families to shape their own futures while creating safe and sustainable communities. To learn more about our Mutual Self-Help Housing program visit:

Stay tuned for more historical background in this year’s monthly newsletters as we celebrate 60 years of SHE! 

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