Brennan Stark and Steve Burns were 16-year-old Archmere Academy students when, inspired by Elon Musk, they challenged themselves to design an ideal living space that was as eco-friendly, naturally efficient and so affordable that virtually anyone could afford one.
That was in 2016, less than two years ago.
Today, Stark and Burns are freshmen at the University of Delaware (Stark is in the Horn Program for Entrepreneurship, Burns is a finance major), and have started a nonprofit called Y Innovations. The plan is to build their first 660-square-foot natural house at 2903 N. Jefferson in March. With the help of Family Promise, it will become the home of a family struggling with their living situation.
The secret to Y Innovations’ ecological and inexpensive construction? Straw.
You might be imagining straw huts popping up in the 9th Ward, but the houses are more like this:
This adorable little house was built last summer as part of the Natural Cottage Project in Oxford, Mich., where Stark and Burns honed their natural building skills as interns.
Their own design for Jefferson Street is a bit less Middle Earth:
To give you a sense of the size, it’s a two-bedroom house, about the size of many two-bedroom apartments in Wilmington — but the monthly cost is significantly lower. A mortgage payment on a Y Innovation house might be in the neighborhood of $300 a month; two-bedroom apartment rentals in Wilmington generally start at around $600 and can well exceed $1,000 a month.
“We’re really aiming to have people purchase these homes,” Stark says. He’s not unaware that homebuying is especially challenging for people who have become homeless for one reason or another, or that the financial hardships that can lead to homelessness often involve ruining one’s credit in an effort to stay afloat.
“In the beginning, we’re going to go through the FHA,” he says, referring to the Federal Housing Administration’s home mortgage program, which is far more forgiving when it comes to credit score than a private mortgage. Still, even FHA loans leave out a good number of low-income families, and Stark, fully committed to his cause, isn’t satisfied with that.
“Eventually,” he said, “We will have a rent-to-own option for people who don’t qualify for a loan. We would have partnerships with lenders who would agree that if someone pays their rent faithfully for a certain number of years and takes classes on financial management and homeownership, they’ll approve the loan and apply the rent paid to their mortgage payoff.”
Idealistic? A bit, but he takes his self-imposed challenge seriously. When the Jefferson Street property was acquired, he and Burns worried that they were interjecting their project into a neighborhood that might not want them there. So they went door to door, explaining their plan and asking for feedback.
“The response was very positive,” Stark said. “People let us into their homes to talk.”
That process gave them a glimpse of what folks were getting in terms of rental apartments that cost two to three times more than a new natural home. Homes that, when built correctly, are built to last over 100 years.
While the Jefferson project is on track, they are still raising funds and looking for volunteers. Click here for more information about ways to get involved.
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