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A little-known federal plan “The Mutual Self-Help Program” provides financing for homes in rural areas for low-income families. To get into the program low-income families must quality (based on income, or lack thereof) and then provide “sweat equity” for 10% to 15% of the value of each new home. The barter of one’s labor serves as the down payment.

A typical scenario will see a dozen modest homes built in a cluster with the 12 families contributing their time together, amounting to about 2/3 of the labor, to build the houses in the group. (Air conditioning, plumbing and stucco are among the tasks left for licensed specialists.)

Each year on average the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) disburses some $200 million in mortgages for about 1,500 families in 40 states participating in the self-help program.

Some USDA officials see the program paralleling the Homestead Act of 1862 under President Abraham Lincoln, when people were given a 160 acre tract on which to build and plant with the intention of populating the frontier.

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