116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
NEWTON — The African-American proverb “each one, teach one” goes back to the 1800s in America when an enslaved person who learned to read or write was duty-bound to teach someone else.
Dominique Roberson, 32, said he feels that duty today as a team leader at Homes for Iowa, a nonprofit organization that trains incarcerated people in skilled construction trades while building affordable houses for Iowa communities.
“I didn’t even think I was interested (in construction) until I became part of the program,” said Roberson, who is serving time at the Newton Correctional Facility.
But once he started the home performance apprenticeship program, which requires 2,000 hours of house framing, insulating, installing windows and doors, drywalling and painting at the Homes for Iowa site near Newton, he was hooked. Especially on painting.
“I like to be the person who makes the job look good at the end,” he said. “Like Picasso.”
State aid boosts program
Homes for Iowa, started in 2019, aims to satisfy two of Iowa’s biggest needs — training workers for in-demand jobs and building affordable housing.
Three-quarters of Iowa’s construction firms report having difficulty hiring carpenters, welders, heating and air conditioning experts and other skilled tradespeople, according to the 2021 Iowa Workforce and Economy report.
And Iowa’s economic growth is tied to having enough affordable housing, according to the office of Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Iowa will need another 47,000 homes by 2030 to keep up with its projected population growth, the Iowa Finance Authority reported. Much of the state’s existing houses are decades old — 40 percent were built before 1950 — and many need rehabilitation.
A shortage of housing means higher prices. Nearly 40 percent of Iowa’s renter households and nearly 16 percent of homeowners are paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing expenses.
Homes for Iowa built eight houses in 2020 and is on pace to complete 22 this year. With a small budget, the program wasn’t able to buy supplies in bulk and didn’t have storage space for materials. its first houses cost far more than the target price of $65,000 to $75,000.
But last month, Reynolds awarded Homes for Iowa $10 million in pandemic aid money. Now the goal is to build 60 houses in 2022 and maybe 100 a few years later, said Homes for Iowa board President Mike Norris.
Homes for Iowa will use the money to buy three years’ worth of building materials and a second vehicle for moving completed houses to cities across the state, Norris said. The group also will build a material storage, shop and classroom space.
“We’ll be doing what we’re doing, but more,” Norris said. “We can have a greater impact in a shorter amount of time.”
The Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity, which provides affordable housing to people in Cedar, Iowa, Johnson and Washington counties, has struggled to build affordable houses in Iowa City.
“We’re facing some challenges with building in the Iowa City area,” said Scott Hawes, associated executive director for the group. “The cost of land and the cost of materials has gone up significantly.”
The nonprofit purchased five Homes for Iowa houses this year and has signed up for five more in 2022.
Four houses already have been placed on concrete foundations on a street in southeast Iowa City, where volunteers will build garages, put in floor coverings and do landscaping to get the houses ready for lower-income families by the end of the year, Hawes said.
“For a family of four, five, six or seven, if you’re earning 80 percent or less than the area median income, there aren’t too many housing options out there for you,” Hawes said. “This is a good opportunity to get safe, affordable, decent housing out there.”
All the Homes for Iowa houses are 1,200 square feet with three bedrooms and two bathrooms and are modeled on homes built in a similar program in South Dakota. The houses can accommodate people of all ages and abilities with a walk-in shower, levers instead of doorknobs and wider halls that can fit wheelchairs. With vinyl siding and a bump-out window in the front room, the houses also have some curb appeal.
Interest from offenders
Homes for Iowa supports Department of Corrections apprenticeship programs in building trades that include electrician, HVAC, painter, plumber and home performance laborer.
Right now, Homes for Iowa can work only with minimum-security offenders, who check out of the release center each day and walk down to the job site. They train under a master electrician, master of HVAC engineering and other experts, many of whom used to run their own construction companies, Site Supervisor Chad Squires said.
“I’m one of those guys always asking a ton of questions,” said Roberson, the Newton inmate. “My plan, once I get out, is to pursue a career in this trade and hopefully open my own business.”
Plans to expand the program with medium-security offenders — who have longer sentences more conducive to multiyear apprenticeships — were put on hold after two offenders at the Anamosa State Penitentiary used prison-issued hammers last March to bludgeon to death a nurse and a correctional officer.
More than 130 men incarcerated in Iowa’s prisons have asked to be transferred to Newton so they can be part of the Homes for Iowa expansion, said Dan Clark, president of Iowa Prison Industries, which provides work training to men and women incarcerated at Iowa’s state prisons.
Critics of prison labor programs say they exploit incarcerated people by paying them a sliver of what they’d be making on the outside.
Most offenders working for Homes for Iowa are paid 60 to 85 cents an hour, although some can get higher wages if they are part of an apprenticeship with a specific private employer, Norris said. The primary value offenders get is in the training and coursework, he said.
The Corrections Department and Iowa Workforce Development help apprentices line up jobs for when they are released, through resume workshops, Zoom calls and virtual job fairs.
“If you’ve got a felony record and not even a high school degree this is a job that pays really well and is open to second chances,” Clark said of construction work. “Employers are scratching and clawing to try to find skilled trades people.”
Wages can be as high as $25 an hour and many firms offer lots of overtime, Clark said.
Adam Walske, 35, of Des Moines, didn’t have a job before he left the Newton prison in May, but it wasn’t long after until he got one.
“When I went down to the union hall, he asked me what experience I had,” Walske said about visiting the office of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Walske had completed the home performance laborer apprenticeship.
“I showed him my certificate and the Homes for Iowa website,” Walske said. “Right way, he was like ‘I’m going to call somebody.’ He said he was going to get me a job in a couple of hours and he did.”
Now Walske is working for Performance Contracting Inc., which has the contract to build the Microsoft data center in Cumming, southwest of Des Moines. His goal is to earn his journeyman’s license, which will allow him to make $32 an hour.
“The rest of the jobs I ever worked, I just hated the job. You wake up not wanting to go to work everyday because your body’s sore,” he said. “Now I don’t mind going to work because I know I won’t kill myself with the work. I’m working toward something.”
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