Calistoga Helps Families To Afford and Build Their Own Homes

In 2003, Calistoga Affordable Housing (CAH), a new local nonprofit, proposed to the Calistoga City Council a development of 18 mutual self-help affordable houses in the heart of Calistoga near schools, parks and shopping. Self-help affordable housing projects are unique, requiring a commitment from each selected family of 30 hours per week to work with the construction team that builds the houses.

Assisted by professional builders during certain phases, the homeowners do the bulk of the actual construction themselves under experienced supervisors, creating essentially professionally built houses. The homeowners know they are building houses they will all live in, so they tend to take greater care than paid workers and learn valuable skills that will help them care for their homes or pursue a new vocation.

Calistoga, like many communities in the Napa Valley, is losing its affordable housing at an alarming rate as housing prices are pushed up due to demand and desirability of the area. The median house price in Calistoga skyrocketed from $285,000 in 1997 to $707,000 in the past year, a 148 percent increase.

The town is also a major tourist destination, and many of the workers in the hotel, retail and wine industries earn less than 80 percent of median income and cannot afford to rent or own a home in the Napa Valley. This results in unsafe overcrowding and long commutes.

The community has a large Latino population (more than 38 percent), most of whom work in vineyards or tourist facilities. Although vital to the local economy, these relatively low-paid workers tend to be at the bottom of the economic ladder, and few can afford to buy a house. Creating home ownership opportunities for these people is an important step in making them feel part of the community.

The challenge for a small town like Calistoga (population 5,223) is how to help families who live and work there buy a home. Without a redevelopment agency funding source and with limited development generating housing funds, the city needed to form partnerships with others, such as the Napa Valley Housing Authority and nonprofit affordable housing agencies.

Innovative Financing Relieves General Fund Subsidy

The success of this project depended on whether local support could be generated, partnerships made with others, and government loans and grants secured. CAH partnered with Burbank Housing Development Corporation, an experienced affordable housing nonprofit, to develop the project, secure the funding sources, market to qualified families and provide for the construction and management.

The city council committed to providing $540,000 in loans to the project from current and future housing funds, even though much of the funding would initially need to come from the city’s general fund. Calistoga has a certified Housing Element and, in 2004, the city was awarded a Community Development Block Grant to help fund this project. The grant relieved the initial general fund subsidy, and the city is now in a good financial position to support future housing projects from local housing funds.

This large funding commitment for a small town had an incredible impact on generating other funding sources from federal, state and nonprofit foundations to fund the $5 million project. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and State CalHome provided the bulk of subsidized mortgages, along with several other federal and state loans and grants. Many homeowners were also eligible for state Joe Serna Farm Worker loans, and the Rural Communities Assistance Corporation provided interim financing of $1.1 million as well. In addition, local community organizations, such as the Napa Valley Wine Auction, provided grants to subsidize the project.

Demand for the project was very high. More than 100 families signed up, and the lucky 18 buyers were selected through a lottery system. These first-time home-owners moved into Saratoga Manor in September 2005. The first subsidized housing project in the upper Napa Valley in almost 15 years, the project has had a significant impact on the community.

Project Captured on Film

One of the related activities was for local students to promote the community and the affordable housing project. A local organizer, in collaboration with the Marin Latino Film Festival, proposed having Calistoga High School photography students film the progress of the Saratoga Manor project from start to finish. The film is an exciting record of the social, economic and political forces that affected the project, and has been shown to community groups and on local broadcast television.

Other groups assisted the homeowners in construction, and service clubs and other groups had workdays to help clean up and paint. Youthbuild USA, a nonprofit organization providing skills training for at-risk youth, provided landscaping and fence-building assistance.

Hard Work Pays Off

The community recognized the need for more affordable housing, and with the strength of a small town’s focused effort to bring together the right people and organizations, made this affordable housing project a reality. This success has encouraged an ongoing partnership between CAH and the city to develop other potential affordable housing projects.

The mutual self-help process was wonderful to observe and an example of a community’s commitment to its people and neighbors helping neighbors. Mutual self-help communities have an excellent record of pride of ownership, overall appearance and growth in value due to the hard work the families themselves have invested in creating their home.

The City of Calistoga won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Housing Programs and Innovations category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit

This article appears in the March 2006 issue of Western City
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