Last week it was my privilege as State Director of USDA Rural Development to travel across Alaska with Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager. His trip is a follow-up to one that was taken by Secretary Vilsack to Western Alaska in August, as part of the Rural Tour. I was privileged to also participate in that trip.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the start of USDA’s housing program and it was fitting that the Under Secretary observed the occasion by visiting two of our “Self Help” housing sites. Self help is a great program. A group of prospective homeowners, working under the direction of a non-profit, build their own homes. Usually about eight to ten homes are involved. It takes a year, but at the end of the process, the homeowner’s work becomes their “sweat equity”.
In Wasilla the Under Secretary met Mary Beall, a mother of eight, who finished building her home about a year ago. Shortly after she and three of her children moved in, she was involved in a serious auto accident. Because she was physically unable to complete her landscaping, Pat Shiflea and his staff at Alaska Community Development Corporation stepped forward and did it for her, at no cost. The Corporation oversaw her home construction effort.
In Palmer, we joined U.S. Senator Mark Begich in helping a group of prospective homeowners as they build their houses in a subdivision off Evergreen Avenue. These efforts are reminiscent of an earlier time in our Nation’s history when neighbors helped neighbors raise barns or bring in crops. It is refreshing to see that in this age, that spirit still lives.
Since Congress established our housing programs in 1949, three million rural Americans have benefited from housing loans, grants and guarantees totaling $124.6 billion. After visiting the Self-Help construction site, we met with Bill Eckhardt and senior members of their mortgage operations department (at Palmer branch) to present the “Top Mat-Su Lender” award. In FY’2009, Alaska USA had an all-time high level of participation in the GRH program. Alaska USA did $ 10.6 million in GRH loans in the Mat-Su!
Also during his trip, Under Secretary Tonsager got to see the regional hub community of Kotzebue, which is above the Arctic Circle and facing difficulties due to erosion, especially during the fall storm period. He also flew to two extremely rural communities which have predominantly Native populations and he addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage. You can read his speech here.
We traveled a great deal, seeing renewable energy projects, water projects and rural homes in need of replacement. No matter what the challenge, USDA Rural Development is equal to the job. As we enter our next 60 years of service to rural America, we’re just getting started and I was pleased to spend a great deal of last week getting to show our state to the Under Secretary.
Jim Nordlund, Alaska State Director