Community in the Desert: Tierra Madre Program Builds Sustainable Community

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Tierra Madre residents work together to build a straw bale home in New Mexico.
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Tierra Madre residents work together to build a straw bale home in New Mexico.

When the Sisters of Charity assigned Jean Miller to serve low-income families on the U.S. side of the Mexico border, the nun identified affordable housing as their greatest need. She envisioned sustainable communities that combined owner-built housing with care for the environment.

In May 1995, she and Franciscan Sister Joan Brown founded a unique housing project called Tierra Madre (“Earth Mother” in Spanish), annexed to the city of Sunland Park, a predominantly Spanish-speaking Mexican-American community of 11,000 people on the New Mexico/Mexico border near El Paso, Texas. Today the desert blooms with 14 energy efficient straw bale homes, a community center, a model home, and a park. Six more homes are under construction and will be complete in July. The plan is to build forty-seven homes, so Tierra Madre still has a long way to go, but it already feels like a neighborhood.

Tierra Madre allows low-income families to build and own their own homes (but not the land they sit on) without a down payment, explains Dolores Saldana-Caviness, the community’s director. The land is held in common by the community, which determines a formula for sale prices to keep mortgage payments low and assure affordable housing into the future. Energy efficient straw bale construction, passive solar design, solar water heaters, water harvesting, gray water systems, and permaculture design keep utility bills low while preserving resources and protecting the fragile desert environment. At the same time, residents of the job-poor area are creating economic alternatives for themselves by learning marketable straw-bale building and permaculture skills.

Families who are approved for loans must complete eight hours of home-buyer education to be eligible to build. A self-help construction program empowers a group of four to six families to work together on their homes after work and on weekends. Each family must commit to working for twenty-five to thirty hours a week while its group builds a cluster of homes–ten to twelve months of hard work. The 1,500-square-foot, mostly four-bedroom straw bale homes were designed by architect Brian Lockhart from Bisbee, Arizona.

Tierra Madre needs financial contributions to continue to thrive. Contact the non-profit organization at (505) 589-4412; P.O. Box 1768, Sunland Park, NM 88063. 

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368