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As housing costs have soared, the chance of owning a home is beyond the reach of millions of Americans. But in Minnesota, an unlikely alliance is trying to address the shortage of affordable housing in rural parts of that state, by employing an unusual workforce: prisoners.
NPR's Cheryl Corley has our story.
CHERYL CORLEY reporting:
This is a proud for Mike Payson.
Mr. MIKE PAYSON (West Central Minnesota Communities Action Agency): We're coming into our 987 square feet living space Cambridge model. It's a split entry home. A little more cost effective to build.
CORLEY: Payson is showing off one of the homes his nonprofit group is building with the help of prison inmates. He's a housing developer for West Central Minnesota Communities Action Agency. It's one of a handful of community groups contracting with the state's corrections department. This is house is in Alexandria, Minnesota, about a two and a half drive northwest of Minneapolis.
Mr. PAYSON: We do put vaulted ceilings in our houses. Another added feature that we put in, our plant shelves. We're building low to moderate income housing, but we want to make it appealing to people.
(Soundbite of construction)
CORLEY: High up on the roof of the house, four inmates are working. Twenty-seven-year-old Cashmere Jackson, who's serving time for cocaine possession, is bent over holding a nail gun.
Mr. KASHMIR JACKSON (Inmate): Right now we're shingling. And we start off by laying tar paper down and water and ice. Then our barrier, then we shingle all the way up.
CORLEY: The work crews on these projects are minimum-security inmates. As many as eight at a time work on a crew 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.
Mr. JACKSON: I don't even think I ever been on a ladder before I came here.
CORLEY: And so what have you learned how to do?
Mr. JACKSON: I learned how to do concrete. I learned how to frame, build walls. I learned how to shingle, side, just about everything.
CORLEY: Another inmate hands Jackson the shingles. Jeff Brooks was convicted of burglary. This is his second week on the job.
Mr. JEFF BROOKS (Inmate): I actually - I lived in Cold Springs at the time of my arrest, we were actually $500 for a two-bedroom apartment. And I just found out that this particular house that we're working on, if you qualify your monthly payments are $525. So another $25, you could be owning your home. So I hope some kind of way I can apply of these down the line or something, try to get my family in it. So I think it's a good - it's a real good deal.
CORLEY: In other states, prisoners build modular homes behind prison walls. The Minnesota program is designed to teach inmates a skill as they build houses from the ground up. They live in county jails close to the construction sites. Ron Solheid, who manages the program for the corrections department, says the inmates earn up to $1.50 an hour. Cheap labor, but Solheid says it doesn't mean local construction workers are losing jobs.
Mr. RON SOLHEID (Corrections Department): The plumbers that are hired, the electricians, the excavators, the people who install the finished flooring, all of those pieces of work on these homes are done by local contractors. So we've actually increased the jobs in their area by these homes being built.
CORLEY: 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.
Mr. PAYSON: A lot of folks in our area don't think that that's affordable housing, but with the financing that we couple with the construction, that's what makes our projects extremely affordable.
Ms. CHELSEA HAYES (Homeowner): Don't mind the mess in here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAYES: This is our bedroom.
CORLEY: Chelsea Hayes' new two-bedroom home is in Garfield, Minnesota. She lives there with her one-year-old daughter, Lilly, and her husband, Brandon.
Mr. BRANDON Hayes (Homeowner): We're finishing the basement. Right now we're working on that. And our lot is pretty good size compared to the neighbors. So that's all I know. A lot of people think it's the nicest house in Garfield, in this area. So...
CORLEY: Chelsea and Brandon are young, 20 and 21, and this is their first entry into home ownership, something they didn't think would happen for years. Their household income is $22,000. The house cost $150,000. But their mortgage isn't much higher than what they used to pay for rent.
Mr. HAYES: About 500 we were paying for rent. And right now we're paying 550 a month for our mortgage.
Ms. HAYES: Five eighty.
Mr. HAYES: Under 600 for sure, yeah.
CORLEY: Prison inmates here have built 250 homes for rural residents. One hundred seventy five inmates have completed the program. Prison officials say the vast majority who've served their sentences now have jobs in construction.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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