Peter Carey, president and chief executive officer of Self-Help Enterprises, will retire this year after 25 years in the top job and 40 years at the nonprofit organization in Visalia.
Following service in the Peace Corps, Carey completed his college education and thought he would be an English teacher — until he stumbled across a mutual self-help housing project in rural West Virginia and arranged to come West in 1974 as a Vista volunteer.
"I fell in love with the organization and, honestly, fell in love with the town," Carey said. "I could walk down Main Street and know people."
Originally from the New York City area, he married Cathy Manning of Visalia, settled down, raised a family and served on the Visalia City Council in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
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At Self-Help, he worked on housing policy and community development issues with advocacy groups, federal and state legislators and government officials to bring decent housing and water and sewer services to the working poor.
During his tenure as CEO, 3,900 homes and apartment units were built, 3,000 homes rehabilitated and 20,000 sewer and water connections made.
"Everything we do involves the community," Carey said. "We're not consultants. We don't parachute in. We call everyone we work with a participant."
Under the mutual self-help model, groups of future homeowners build homes with their own hands, usually several at a time. It's akin to the old-fashioned barn-raising and is often called "sweat equity" housing, a term Self-Help said it coined in the 1960s.
The method traces its roots to a housing experiment in Pennsylvania coal country during the Great Depression but found fertile ground in the San Joaquin Valley.
In 1963, the movement went from experimental to established when the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded three self-help homes in Goshen.
The homes still stand, and Self-Help Enterprises, established in 1965, has since tallied 6,000 sweatequity homes.
"That's more than anyone in the nation," Carey said.
It's not just sweat-equity housing, though.
Self-Help manages home rehabilitation projects in Woodlake, Farmersville and other towns, operates a first-time homebuyer program, has brought sewer and water to poor communities and built 26 apartment projects in Cutler, Goshen, Richgrove, Del Rey, Hanford, Biola, Madera and elsewhere.
"I like the business side of it," Carey said. "We want to make sure that the San Joaquin Valley gets the resources it needs so desperately."
The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development provide most of the funding. Self-Help Enterprises, which employs about 60 people, coordinates funding, qualifies homeowners for loans and provides technical assistance.
Carey said he will remain active in the National Rural Housing Coalition and the Housing Assistance Council, and plans to organize Self-Help documents to preserve the historical record.
His last day is June 30.
He will be succeeded by Tom Collishaw, vice president and director of development at Self-Help.
On June 20, Self-Help will pay tribute to Carey and also celebrate its 50th year.