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Program Brings New Life in a Blighted Neighborhood

Image of instructor demonstrating proper layout and prepping material to mortise hinges.
Instructor demonstrates proper layout and prepping material to mortise hinges.
Students in Fresno City College's Housing ReConstruction Training Program are literally taking hammer to nail to build new job skills and revitalize an old neighborhood in Fresno, California.

Funded by a $600,000 grant through HUD's Hispanic Serving Institutions Assisting Communities (HSIAC) program, the Housing ReConstruction Training Program is a 3-year program consisting of classroom instruction and hands-on training. To date, four cohorts of students have completed classroom training and two homes in central Fresno’s Lowell neighborhood have been revitalized. Work is scheduled to begin on the third and fourth houses on January 14, 2013.

The students are learning both practical and business skills in a growing industry - remodeling existing homes and buildings. "New construction-related jobs used to be 50 percent or more of our workforce in the [San Joaquin] Valley, but that has decreased substantially," said Michael Lacko, licensed general contractor and instructor. "But remodeling...is where the jobs are for both workers and people who want to start new businesses."

The program trains prospective remodelers in five essential areas: professionalism, trade skills, communication skills, critical thinking, and customer service. To qualify, students must be 18 years old or older; read, write, and speak English; and physically capable of doing the work. Students spend the first 12 weeks of the program in the classroom/shop and the second 12 weeks on the job site.

In the classroom, students get professional development training that focuses on finding employment or starting a business. They produce class presentations, build their computer and communication skills, and learn how to market themselves. At the job site, students learn every aspect of remodeling from the ground up, including foundation work, termite repair, carpentry, painting, texturing, and electrical repair. Each student also learns how to install ceiling fans and plumbing.

Five students in hard hats working on a roof to install a solar system.
Students installing a solar system with Grid Alternatives, a non-profit that installs systems for low-income households.

Students pay nothing to participate thanks to the HUD grant which funds the coordinator, instructors, equipment, student tools, supplies, and fees. All the work is supervised by the instructor, who is a licensed general contractor, and the city's Housing Authority construction contractor.

The first two homes, owned by what was the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Fresno and the Fresno Housing Authority, are located in the Lowell neighborhood, which is the focus of current revitalization efforts. The students' work is giving the neighborhood new hope and improving the area's housing market, according to Craig Scharton, director of the Downtown and Community Revitalization Department for the city of Fresno.

Scharton says that home values in Lowell have gone up 15 percent in the 2 years since the revitalization plan went into effect. He also says that with crime rates dropping by double digits and school test scores going up, more people are willing to buy homes in the area. "Those people fix up houses and we start transforming our city. We go from one seemingly simple program to city transformation," Scharton said. "And as I've heard from the students, every single one of them says that their lives have been positively affected by this program as well."

One of those students, 20-year-old H. Steele, completed work on the second home and says that the program gave him not only the remodeling skills he wanted but also the professional development skills he used to open his own drywall repair business, Pirate Patch Drywall Repair.

"It was probably the most life-changing thing I have ever done. First of all, I got a lot of networking opportunities that I would have never gotten without the program. It set some of my life goals for the next 10 to 20 years that I would have never pursued before," Steele said.

Steele has also become smitten with the neighborhood. He's become a member of the very active Lowell Neighborhood Association and has become a resident himself.

"[Lowell] comes off as a bad neighborhood with a lot of violence and crime, but I found [from] attending the association meetings that the neighbors are so connected and so willing to put in a lot of effort for changes," he noted.

Mathew James had wanted to get into real estate investment when he heard about the program. He says that the program taught him how to not only rehabilitate a house from the foundation to the roof but also make valuable connections in the industry.

"I really liked the program's emphasis on doing the five-step problem solving process. It has helped me be more analytical," said James. "The program was an excellent idea. I would only hope that they implement more programs like this, where they put cohorts together and contribute more to the workforce. I came out knowing more than I ever thought I would."

The first three cohorts consisted of 16 students each. Some of the students of the first cohorts joined the fourth to benefit from an expanded curriculum. They are all looking forward promising careers in the home renovation industry. And they are also acquiring skills they can use throughout their lives in their own homes.