Paula Puello has broken new ground in her family: she’s a homeowner.
“I’m the first one in my whole family to own a house,” she said. “That includes the mother, my father, my brother, my sister … I’m the first one. And I’m very excited.”

Paula Puello has broken new ground in her family: she’s a homeowner.
“I’m the first one in my whole family to own a house,” she said. “That includes the mother, my father, my brother, my sister … I’m the first one. And I’m very excited.”
Puello recently completed the Milford Housing Development Corporation’s Self-Help Housing Program last November.
The MHDC is one of several places to turn for low-income housing options in the Milford area, which is also home to Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, government HUD apartments, nonprofit housing assistance resources, Section 8 apartments and rental homes.
Spending versus building
For Puello, the Self-Help Housing program funded by USDA Rural Development made the most sense to her; the difference comes down to building equity in a home.
She said paying a monthly mortgage makes a lot more sense than paying a month of rent.
The margin is a wide one; Realtor.com lists the average rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Milford at $1,400 a month, while self-help participants can expect to pay $400 to $600 a month on brand new homes, depending on their income.
There is one other very important investment future homeowners must make, however: their time.
Each member must commit their weekends and Mondays, at least 30 hours per week, for around 14 months or about 65 percent of construction labor. They work on their homes, and also the houses of three other families during construction.
“We worked on everything from the foundation on up – painting, putting in windows and doors, really a little bit of everything,” said Chrishona Reeves, who also built a home with MHDC last year. “It was a great learning experience, because now, if something breaks, we’ll be able to fix it.”
Single moms active in homebuilding program
Single-parent households and minorities make up the majority of self-help participants, and a recent study by the Housing Assistance Council noted one particular demographic seeing high representation: single mothers.
They account for 40 percent of the self-help borrowers, the study said.
Those are the ones that Dave Szumski, home ownership manager for MHDC, really wants to reach since 39.5 percent of all children in Delaware come from single-parent households.
“One of our homebuilders was a single mom with a couple of kids and she told me, ‘Dave, there’s not a morning I don’t wake up and pinch myself because I can’t believe I’m waking up in my own home with my family. And you know what I’ve realized? If I can do this, what can’t I do?’” Szumski said.
Help from Habitat
While MHDC is the only self-help USDA rural-backed developer in Delaware, Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity and Dover-based NCALL Research also has a hand in self-help Housing. While Milford Development built 22 self-help homes in Kent and Sussex counties last year, Habitat for Humanity has built three homes in Milford since 1990. NCALL Research mainly helps with technical aspects of low-income housing.
That said, the organizations share a collaborative relationship, and have cooperated on such projects as Dover’s Strong Neighborhoods program, currently working to help 13 families become homeowners.
“By pooling our resources and talents, we will be able to get much more done than it if were just one of us,” Szumski said. “We all share the same mission.”
‘Sweat equity’
The average total price of a self-help home is around $153,000, including the $33,000 or so in “sweat equity” that the homebuyers save, which helps them avoid a down payment.
The average price of a Habitat home in Kent County is about $104,000. About 90 percent of Habitat homeowners felt that the sweat equity helped prepare them for home maintenance.
Dan Van Vorst is Milford Development’s construction manager and oversees and participates in the construction of self-help homes. He said the four families that work together usually become tight-knit by the end.
“Just about the time we’re done not only have they become a group that could almost go out and make money as a group of carpenters, but they’re also neighbors,” Van Vorst said. “So they’ve learned enough about each other, they move in and they watch each other’s kids, they mow each other’s grass, and in the beginning of this program they were people who didn’t know each other.”
Szumski said the entire process, which can take two years, is what makes the self-help housing process different. That is why he estimates the retention rate of the houses at “greater than 90 percent.”
“The families who start with us finish with us,” he said. “They go through a process to repair credit and prepare for a mortgage application with USDA, so we develop a relationship with them through that.
“Once they get started, once they see that first house get roofed over and enclosed and sided, I think their commitment level actually shoots up.”
Van Vorst said it is when the USDA shows up on that final day to hand the mortgage papers over as the moment that it all comes together.
“We do the walk through with them. It’s always been a tradition,” Van Vorst said. “We do a little, ‘Welcome to your home.’ We give them their keys, take a few pictures, and then you can see as we’re walking out the door the emotion comes out of them.
“They just realize, ‘I’m ready to move on with the rest of my life.’”