The clock is ticking on thousands of rural affordable housing units in Wisconsin.

Built under the federal Sec. 515 program, these aging homes are at risk of losing their affordability in just the next several years.

Impact Seven, a longtime community development corporation in Almena, Wis., hopes to save these properties.

“We want to develop a model and tools that can be used by nonprofits to keep these projects in the affordable housing program,” says Brett Gerber, Impact Seven’s president and CEO.

Gerber’s organization recently received a $100,000 Wells Fargo NEXT Seed Capital Award to fund a targeted program aimed at preserving Sec. 515 properties across the state.

It’s a critical task because in many rural communities these developments are often the only affordable housing in the area. Originally built and financed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sec. 515 rural housing loan program, the properties carried a 20-year affordability period, which is nearing the end at many developments. In the past two years, there have been no Sec. 515 loans available to construct new developments. Instead, the focus has been on the rehabilitation of the stock.

Impact Seven’s preservation effort will focus on small developments with 20 or fewer units.  In Wisconsin, there are 148 of these projects with about 1,800 units where the affordability periods have expired or will expire before 2017, according to Gerber.

The initial goal is to preserve and rehabilitate 120 units most at risk for neglect or conversion to market rate by 2017 and then 100 per year thereafter, he says.

Impact Seven, which is also a community development financial institution (CDFI), plans to work with buyers as well as sellers to navigate the process of maintaining the properties in the affordable housing stock. The transfer of the housing is often complicated and can take 18 months or longer, so it’s important to work closely with sellers, who can become impatient during the process, Gerber says.

The project will look to develop a “toolbox” of solutions for buyers and sellers and bring attention to the issue.

It’s innovative that the group will work with both buyers and sellers to provide technical support and resources, says Lesley Eckstein, executive vice president and head of community lending and investment at Wells Fargo. “By pursuing this strategy, Impact Seven is helping to ensure that affordable and responsible financial products and services are available in underserved communities—a key reason Wells Fargo supports this important program,” she says.

Each year through 2016, one CDFI with a promising idea for expanding its products and services to serve more low-income people and communities will win a NEXT Seed Capital Award.

Gerber’s group gets its name from its early days when it concentrated on seven rural northwest counties. Over time, it has expanded across Wisconsin and now owns and operates about 1,400 housing units.

Impact Seven recently took on its own preservation effort, the $2.2 million acquisition and rehabilitation of a trio of Sec. 515 properties that were at risk of converting to market rate. The properties—one with 24 units and two with eight units each—are located in three different communities in northwest Wisconsin. However, they had been packaged as one deal when they were initially financed.  Impact Seven purchased the properties and is now in the process of rehabbing them.

All 40 units are reserved for families earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income.

Connect with Donna Kimura, deputy editor of Affordable Housing Finance, on Twitter @DKimura_AHF.