Inmates Build Affordable Housing

The Hoeft family in front of their new home.

Chelsey and Brandon Hoeft, with daughter Lily, and dog Charlie stand in front of their new home. The young couple can afford the home because of financing and cheap construction costs. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
The Hoeft's new family home.

The Hoefts' new two-bedroom home in Garfield, Minn. According to Brandon, a lot of people think it is the nicest house in the neighborhood. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Cashmere Jackson, left, and Jeffrey Brooks, right, put shingles on the roof.

Inmates Cashmere Jackson, left, and Jeffrey Brooks, right, put shingles on the roof of a house they are helping build in Alexandria, Minn. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Inside the Alexandria house

An interior view of a house being built by inmates through a partnership with West Central Minnesota Communities Action Agency. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR

Rebuilding takes many forms. Community groups in Minnesota — concerned with affordable housing — are joining groups of prison inmates trying to resurrect careers of their own.

Mike Payson, housing developer for West Central Minnesota Communities Action Agency, proudly shows off one of the homes that his non-profit group is building. He points out the finer details, such as vaulted ceilings.

"We're building low- to moderate-income housing," Payson says, "but we want to make it appealing to people."

Payson's agency is one of a handful of community groups contracting with the state's corrections department to help build affordable housing. The house the crew is currently building is located in Alexandria, Minn. — about a two-and-a-half hour drive northwest of Minneapolis.

On the roof of the house, four inmates lay tarpaper for shingling. Among them is Cashmere Jackson, 27, who is serving time for cocaine possession. He's bent over, nail gun in hand, focused on his work. The workers are minimum-security inmates, in groups of eight people — or fewer — and are supervised by a corrections department carpenter.

Jackson, like many of the prisoners, didn't know much about construction before joining the crew a year ago.

"I don't even think I've been on a ladder before coming here," he says.

Jeff Brooks hands Jackson the shingles. Brooks was convicted of burglary. This is his second week on the job. Brooks hopes that he can apply for one of these homes down the line.

"It's a real good deal," he says.

In other states, prisoners build modular homes behind prison walls. The Minnesota program is designed so inmates can build houses from the ground up and learn while on the job. They stay in county jails close to the construction sites.

Ron Solheid, who manages the program for the corrections department, says the inmates earn no more than $1.50 an hour. But he says the low pay doesn't mean local construction workers are losing out on jobs. The plumbers, electricians, excavators, and flooring installers are all local contractors, he says, reasoning that jobs increase where homes are being built.

The homes typically have two or three bedrooms and a two-car garage. They are sold to people who make 80 percent or less of Minnesota's median income — no more than $54,000 for a family of four. Housing developer Mike Payson says the homes are sold at market rate so as not to skew the market, and they cost as much as $170,000.

"A lot of folks don't think that is affordable housing," says Payson, "but the financing we couple with the construction makes it affordable."

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