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Construction nears at St. Helena’s Brenkle Court

Construction nears at St. Helena’s Brenkle Court


A team of local workers is getting ready to devote a year and a half of their lives to realizing their dream of owning a home in St. Helena – and they’re looking for some help.

The nonprofit Our Town St. Helena has established an online tool registry where people can donate money for tools or equipment to aid the future residents of Brenkle Court at 684 McCorkle Ave.

Whether it’s a $15 pair of work gloves or a $229 shade canopy, each item will help the eight families who will be building their own homes, in an arrangement known as sweat-equity or self-help housing. Construction could start as early as this month, as soon as the U.S. Department of Agriculture signs off on the families’ mortgages — a process that’s temporarily on hold during the partial government shutdown.

Tax-deductible contributions toward the tool registry — which is similar to a wedding registry — will free up other funds to be spent on major expenses like concrete, lumber and subcontractors for the 8-unit project.

To browse the registry, go to and click “Donate.”

Although items can be bought online through Amazon or Home Depot, Our Town is encouraging donors to look for the items labeled “Shop Locally” and buy them at Steves Hardware and Central Valley, which are selling them at a discount for Brenkle Court. Whenever one of those items is purchased at one of those stores, members of Our Town can head over to pick them up and deliver them to the job site.

Used tools that are in good condition may also be donated by calling 690-0766 or emailing

People can also sign up as volunteers to help the families. Our Town is working on an app allowing people to sign up and spend a day working alongside the families.

The self-help model operates in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Mutual Self-Help Home Ownership Project, which is providing low-interest mortgages to the eight families. The program has produced 50,000 housing units in the last 25 years.

The families had to meet income requirements and pledge to do 65 percent of the work themselves.

Retired contractor Larry Vermeulen has signed on as construction manager and is already giving the families technical assistance – not just basic construction skills, but also how to form a community among themselves and work effectively as a team.

“Everyone has to work together to accomplish the project as a whole,” rather than each family building their own home separately, Vermeulen said.

The average family size is 5, with an average income of $55,000. There are a total of 19 workers employed in the wine industry, hospitality, food service, elder care and social services. All of them work Upvalley except one who works for the Napa Valley Register.

Most of the families live at Hunt’s Grove or Stonebridge apartments. Once they move into their new homes, their old apartments will become available to other low-income families who face a waiting list of more than two years, said Our Town’s Mary Stephenson.

“There’s going to be a waterfall effect,” she said.

Each family will be responsible for 35 hours of work per week. Half of that must be done by the families themselves, and the other half can come from volunteers.

The families will start working as soon as the mortgage paperwork is processed. Our Town has already finished the site development work, demolishing an old house, outbuildings and well and installing building pads, driveways and sidewalks.

Brenkle Court is named after Father John Brenkle, formerly of the St. Helena Catholic Church and a longtime advocate for affordable and workforce housing.

The city bought the land for $700,000, donated it to Our Town in exchange for only $1, and waived development fees. The project has also received funds from Napa County and the Gasser Foundation.

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