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The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly 15 million housing units nationwide sit vacant.
While most of those houses and apartments are actively for sale, for rent or are being used as second homes, that still leaves millions empty and abandoned. Unfortunately, they’re often so run down as to be unlivable.
But there’s a community college program in Trinidad, Colorado, that has construction students working to get those blighted homes back on the market.
Being a construction worker was not Brian Moreno’s long-held dream. He had a job in the auto body business. “I was in the body shop painting and just doing bodywork, but it wasn’t paying enough,” he said.
It wasn’t paying enough because he’s a new dad.
“Eight months old, my little daughter,” he said. “I just need to get a job and something quick, you know, [to] start supporting my family.”
In March, he was learning how to put up new sheetrock in a dilapidated, century-old home. It was part of his course at nearby Trinidad State College, which will certify him as a construction worker in just one month.
“We’re committing to a theory that we are testing in the marketplace,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. His office received a chunk of money from a national settlement with the country’s largest mortgage lenders after the Great Recession. Weiser used $5 million of it to create the Colorado Partnership for Education and Rural Revitalization.
“The theory is if you train people to redevelop these properties, you do redevelop them, you’ll sell them, improving the community, and the money will go back into the program and it will keep sustaining itself,” Weiser said.
This revitalization program is being implemented at community colleges in southern Colorado. That’s the poorest region of the state, where a boom-and-bust mining legacy in towns like Trinidad has left neighborhoods dotted with long-abandoned homes.
Back at the construction site where students were putting up sheetrock in a dilapidated home, program instructor Jerry Begley pointed to a house next door. “They actually look like little twins,” he said.
Or at least they used to look pretty much identical. But this one had been almost entirely gutted and rebuilt. It was light, homey and modern inside, a two-bedroom, two-bath starter home with new plumbing and electrical.
This will be the first home benefiting from the AG’s initiative to hit the market. Trinidad State is hoping to get about $220,000 for it, less than most houses that size in the area.
With the initiative being new and with new students cycling through every month, it took Begley a long time to renovate this house — roughly 18 months. He expects turnaround times to speed up and said the money from selling the homes keeps the program going.
But although the initiative is operating in four southern Colorado cities, it’s not some grand solution to the region’s housing needs. But that’s not the program’s only point. Begley said it’s the rapid workforce development, training students for construction jobs in just a month.
“We have an opportunity to take some people who might be down and out, who want a second, third, fourth, fifth chance to come in, and they say, ‘We need a job,’” Begley said.
Brian Moreno needed a new career fast, and this program has delivered. Moreno has since finished the program and got that construction job he was looking for, which includes a path to a higher wage to provide for his new family.
This struggling corner of the state really needs options like that.
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