ASPIRE – An Initiative to Create Affordable Housing While Reducing Prison Revolving Doors
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity purposes.
Mauricio Chacra: Alright, alright. Welcome back to another episode of the Doublewide Dudes. Today, we’re joined by Ms. Carla Potts. She is a deputy director of the housing development of NECAC (North East Community Action Corporation) in Missouri. Thank you for joining us.
Carla Potts: Thank you!
Mauricio Chacra: Can you tell our listeners about NECAC?
I can! NECAC is North East Community Action Corporation. And by the virtue of that name, we are a community action agency. We’re also a charter member of NeighborWorks America and a member of Rural LISC (Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation). Basically, what NECAC does is we serve a 12 County area in Northeast Missouri, and we provide a variety of services from housing to social services to health services.
Everything we do is designed to empower individuals and to empower communities.
Alberto Pina: Very cool. Like we just talked about, I know our audience is gonna love listening more about what y’all do. You have a really interesting concept to address housing stock in your communities.
In an article on the federal reserve bank there in St. Louis, you pointed to housing stock or to the availability of housing for purchase as one of the largest challenges to affordable housing. Before we dive into how you’re helping us solve that problem in your community, why do you believe that’s one of the largest challenges we’re facing with this housing crisis?
Carla Potts: Well, I always say I’ve been with NECAC for 42 years. Started when I was five, but nobody believes that. There were no child labor laws. Nobody believes it but I keep telling the same story. The housing stock in Northeast Missouri, and we’re not an exception to the rule, but the housing stock across this nation is aging. So, we have a lot of housing that is in various states of disrepair. So, we also have a gap in affordable housing in that $70,000 to $90,000 range that hasn’t been built in our area for a very long time.
We’ve either built more expensive homes, or we just haven’t had a lot of new construction in many of our counties. We are an intermediary and a packager for USDA 502 direct loans. And we have many people who qualify for the loan, but who simply cannot find a home in the price range that they need.
So many times their certificate expires simply because they cannot find a house or they find one, it needs so much repair that, you know, they can’t get the loan to, to buy it, plus fix it up. So, across this nation, I think we’re just seeing our housing stock age. We’re seeing a lack of building of good housing stock.
So, I think it’s not just that to see this, I think it’s a nationwide issue.
Alberto Pina: That’s definitely the case down here in Texas. And just our 2 cents, it kind of seemed like the lowest hanging fruit. The folks you describe are approved for financing, they feel and the bank feels that they can make that monthly payment if they can just find a home in that price range.
And all of a sudden here in San Antonio, it’s almost like for a starter home you need $250,000-plus to find a starter home these days. Just over the last five years it has dramatically increased, and like you said, that that is a nationwide problem, for sure.
Carla Potts: And you know, you said a starter home for $250,000, we didn’t use to think of starter homes being $250,000.
Alberto Pina: No, not at all.
Carla Potts: Yeah. We thought of starter homes as being in that under $100,000. There’s certainly a gap in what is out there.
Mauricio Chacra: In the business, Alberto and I are in, manufactured housing, a lot of it’s under a hundred thousand and the payments come out to be affordable. It seems like a lot of people are moving to that type of manufactured housing to have an affordable payment. How’s the manufactured housing industry there in Missouri? How do you see that as a viable option for problems like this for the affordable housing aspect?
Carla Potts: Well, I think you need a lot of tools in your toolkit is what I always say. And I think manufactured housing is certainly a tool in the toolkit. I think ASPIRE, which is a little bit of a different look at how we do housing. I think you just need lots of tools in your toolkit. So, I think manufactured housing is certainly something that we see people purchasing, but we don’t see as much of it as, maybe in other areas of the country.
Alberto Pina: What’s really unique about ASPIRE, and the similarity to how factory-built housing solves this pricing issue, is it’s reducing labor cost. On the factory-built side, it’s through efficiencies, on the ASPIRE side it’s through helping folks learn new skills.
This spring y’all started the ASPIRE program. Can you dive into a little more about that and how that reduces the cost of housing?
Carla Potts: Sure. And I agree that manufactured housing and what we’re doing, we all have a lot in common. So, it’s always good to talk to each other.
ASPIRE is named ASPIRE because people aspire to be homeowners, and people aspire to have jobs. And so that’s why it’s called ASPIRE. And basically, it is a partnership between the Joint Apprenticeship Program with the Carpenters’ Workers Union, the Missouri Department of Correction, and we even brought in a local jail in Troy, Missouri, the Lincoln County Correctional Center. We brought in the Federal Bureau of Probation and Parole. You can’t have too many partners in anything you do.
So, ASPIRE is where a home will be built in the correctional facility. And we’re starting out with small homes simply because we had a Sally port problem that we couldn’t get a bigger home through a Sally port. I called it two Gates. They called it a Sally port. And so, we’ll call it a Sally port. New term to me. But they quickly telling me they’re not gates, so I agree then.
We’re building 612 square foot, small homes. And I think they’re really important because I think seniors may want to downsize from that big home they may have trouble taking care of and need that smaller home. And then the millennial who wants to reduce their carbon footprint. And after we do these for a while, we’ll graduate to bigger homes in another correctional facility. But how it will work is that the Carpenters’ Workers Union will provide the training to the inmates working on the homes.
They will build it from the ground up. It will be transported out to lots that people have purchased and have home loans in place to buy this home. Once the inmate is released from the prison, they will get their OSHA 10 and all their certifications, then they will be linked to the carpenters’ union signatory contractors for jobs.
So, you get houses at a cheaper rate because you have less labor costs and people that come out [of prison], get a job that pays good wages. So, we think that’s, that’s just, a wonderful way to bring things together, employment and housing together.
Alberto Pina: Yeah, a hundred percent. It seems like this tackles so many problems, affordable housing, and I’m assuming that we’re going to dive in a little bit more into reducing reentry rates from inmates that are released. But the construction industry as a whole, I think, is suffering from a lack of skilled trades and skilled labor. I know we are here in Texas. What’s the response when these folks get out with these certifications and this skill from the construction industry outside of the prisons?
Carla Potts: Well, the carpenters’ union hasn’t been building homes in the prisons, but they’ve been doing a program where they do some soft stuff, and then they do all the certifications and they’ve still been working with their contractors and then getting people jobs when they come out and you’re right, because carpenters are in high demand in our area too. And sometimes, we just try to find somebody that’s got any kind of skills, right? So, this way, you know that the carpenters’ union has vetted this person and they’ve trained them. And to me, that’s a huge step up. So, I think we see some results now, but I think we’ll only begin to see the real results in the future.
Mauricio Chacra: Hearing that they build them at the prisons, or at the facilities there, are they transported similarly to manufactured housing? Or how does that work?
Carla Potts: Yes, they are transported similarly to manufactured housing. And then they’re set on the foundation that is already in, whether that be a basement, a crawl space, whatever the person can afford. So yes, very much like manufactured housing.
Alberto Pina: That is so cool. What are the price points? Are y’all able to get these well below the $100,000 mark for these folks that ended up purchasing these down the road to tackle some of that inventory problem?
Carla Potts: Yes. Our small home coming out of the prison, which does not include the foundation, the setup, or the transportation will be $37,000.
Alberto Pina: That is phenomenal. That’s, that’s right up there with a singlewide, right?
Carla Potts: [00:10:53] It is. And the bigger ones, you know, when we get to where we can do the two and three bedroom, we modeled our program after the Governor’s House Program in South Dakota, their two bedroom was $57,000 and their three bedroom was $59,000. That doesn’t include transportation or foundation or any of that, but that was coming out of the prison done.
Alberto Pina: Wow. And even with utilities, foundation, the work needed to do to a piece of property, I think that’d be every bit under $100,000.
Carla Potts: Yes. And from every model we’ve ran and everybody we talked to in South Dakota, yes, we can keep it under the a hundred thousand.
Alberto Pina: That is awesome. Now this concept is modeled after the Governor’s House Program in South Dakota. And that they’ve been around a little while, going on 24 years now. What outcomes did they see with their program that y’all are hoping to see there in Missouri?
Carla Potts: Well, they built over 2,000 homes out of one state prison in Springfield, South Dakota. And I was privileged to go to that state prison and watch them doing it. They had 72 pads that they built them on, and it was amazing to watch. And we actually saw one go through the Sally port and head out to the Black Hills.
And I think if you can transport into the Black Hills, there’s probably not many places in Missouri that we can’t get to. They are highly energy efficient, they weathered South Dakota winters. They can weather Missouri winters. They saw recidivism drop, and that was really important. They saw about a 3-4% drop in recidivism that they could tie to this program.
So, I think that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking not only to get good homes into communities and people to have opportunities to be homeowners, but of course the state and we are looking at how to reduce recidivism.
Alberto Pina: Yeah. And this just makes so much sense. From what I’ve read on why people reenter the prison system after getting out, a lot of times is they struggle to find a way to make an income. And if you need to eat, at some point these folks have to make a decision. But it seems like with this program, they’re coming out not only with a way to make money, but there’s gotta be a sense of pride with having the ability to build something that a family, you know, is going to make their memories on forever.
And I know we certainly feel that every time we help a family with a home. So, it sounds like y’all are giving these folks a way to make money, but also, a way to be proud about their contribution to society when they get out.
Carla Potts: Oh, I agree. I always said we did self-help housing for many years. The families built their own homes. And when we handed out those keys, what a sense of pride they had that they now like out their home, but they helped build other’s homes. I think it is the same way for the inmates. And I know the Missouri department of corrections is always looking for new ways to help people learn skills so that they don’t become a revolving door back into the correctional facility.
Mauricio Chacra: Yeah. Having these programs really is incredible. I mean, it’s a win-win situation in my eyes. Obviously, any positive number going up on that aspect is going to be huge for these inmates. How is reducing reentry into these prison systems important for the rest of society?
Carla Potts: Well, I think it’s important in lots of ways. You know, when people come out, they have a job, they start their lives in the community. They raise their families, they contribute to society rather than us having to watch them go back into a system that people pay taxes to support, which does them absolutely no good. It does their families no good.
But when they can contribute to society, help raise their families, I think it’s all about self-esteem, self-worth it’s all those intangible things that you said, I think what you said about that pride. It’s that pride that every morning I’m getting up and going to a job and I’m raising my family and I’m doing the things that I need to do to contribute to society. It is that self-worth and self-esteem. And, you know, we reduce crime in neighborhoods if we don’t have people continually going back in because they have committed a crime. When they can’t eat, I always say they go back to what they know, and what they know is illegal. And so, you reduce the crime, which makes us all have a better sense of security in our neighborhoods.
So, I think it just has so many concrete, and so many intangible things that will benefit our society.
Alberto Pina: Yeah. That’s awesome. As taxpayers, not only is this reducing their burden, if we’re continuously having folks reenter the prison systems, but I think a lot of times people forget just because you’re not affected necessarily by a lack of affordable housing, you’re paying that cost in other ways. If folks can’t find housing, the government steps in and it has to use tax dollars to help with that. So, it sounds like this is benefiting the taxpayers in your state in a number of different ways, as well as making it safer and having neighbors that are all contributing towards a common good.
To us, this seems like a win-win no brainer and we would love to have this in Texas, but as I understand it, there is some pushback from the home building industry, largely because of folks thinking that this creates unfair competition, you don’t necessarily have to pay inmates the way they have to pay on the open market outside of the prisons, but what is the pushback you get and what is your take on that?
Carla Potts: Well, we haven’t had a lot of pushback, but there is always some, and you know, sometimes there’s pushback that you don’t really know about until all of a sudden, it’s there.
So, what I would say is that I don’t think that anybody in the housing industry should feel threatened by this. One, we’re starting out with small homes, not many people are building those. When we go to the 2- and 3-bedroom (homes), we’re really building things that haven’t been built in our communities because the price point for a contractor to build them just isn’t there.
So, he builds more expensive homes where he can make something from it. So, I think we’re building at a price point that most contractors weren’t going to build at. We will use local contractors in this program. We’re going to use foundation people. We’re going to use people to set the house. We’re going to use people to hook the utilities up.
So, we will use local contractors when those homes come out. So, it’s not that we’re never going to use a local contractor. Absolutely we will. And we talked about how it’s hard to find people when you’re a contractor or a builder, to work, we’re creating more trained employees for those contractors. To be able to do more of what they feel they can make a living doing. So, I think it’s not a threat. I think we can be an asset and a help to contractors and developers.
Alberto Pina: Yeah. I would tend to agree. One thing we run into, and a lot of it has to do with just a lack of education, I think is some of these stigmas about what a factory-built home is or about what may be a tiny home, like what y’all are building might be. Have you run into any zoning challenges or any of the “not in my backyard” kind of issues from the neighborhoods that these homes are going into?
Carla Potts: Well, we’ve certainly run into some zoning issues and that is more in our counties that are closer to the city. In some of our very rural counties, there really aren’t any zoning restrictions. So, in those we have not. We do have a town north of us who is working through that, who is changing some of their regulations to allow for that smaller footprint.
You know, I always say of the small homes, we used to build, many, many years ago, small homes. They weren’t great big homes. And a lot of them were that shotgun style house, because either you had to go up or you had to go long. So, we have them in communities. So yes, we’re experiencing some zoning issues, but we’re working through them community by community.
The “not in my backyard”… I think that’s everywhere, isn’t it? I think you touch it when you don’t even think you’re going to. I built a senior property and got it with a senior property. So, you never know, but we’re going to be very careful with the smaller homes, because you don’t to go into that neighborhood with a lot of more expensive homes and put in a smaller home. So, I think we’re going to be cognizant of where we go with them, and the 2 and 3 bedrooms look just like any other 2- and 3-bedroom home.
Alberto Pina: I always tell this story and it’s the God’s honest truth. I almost didn’t show up to my interview almost a decade ago because I didn’t think I wanted to sell trailer homes. And frankly, I just had no clue what they looked like. But with tiny homes and this whole affordable housing revolution, which, you’re absolutely right, as a species, I mean, we’ve lived in tiny homes up until, you know, maybe just a few decades ago when we started building these massive homes we didn’t need, but they look night and day different than what they looked like in the seventies.
And in a 600 square foot home, like what y’all are building, you absolutely can have modern finishes and make these look just like any other, what folks would consider “regular” house. So, I’m excited to see some pictures and hear about the progress of this program. And if y’all ever get down to Texas, it sounds like you basically made your own factory and that’s what we do.
So, we would love to be one of these contractors you work with to set them and get them all together and help find the customer that needs the help.
Carla Potts: Well, we would love to work with you. I love Texas. I would love to get down there, but if you ever get to Missouri, you’ll have to come up and see what we’re doing.
Alberto Pina: Yeah. Our marketing manager spent some time there and I don’t know if that’s how he heard about what y’all were doing, but I know he was all excited, to get you on the podcast, and we definitely appreciate you joining us.
Carla Potts: Well, I was excited to be able to share. And you know, you never know where our paths may lead us, so maybe someday we’ll get to work together.
Alberto Pina: Yes, ma’am!
Mauricio Chacra: Ms. Carla, how can our listeners or the average person get involved in learning more about the ASPIRE program?
Carla Potts: Well, we have a website, it’s necac.org. We have a Facebook page. Doesn’t everybody have a Facebook page? So, we’re certainly on social media. You can always give us a call and just talk to us. We’re always excited. I have an email address and, you know, I’d be happy to share that if you want me to. And we’d certainly be willing to talk about this program.
Alberto Pina: We’ll be sure to include all of those points of contact in our show notes as well.
Mauricio Chacra: I’m excited to see the pictures and how that whole process looks.
Carla Potts: Well, we’ll share!
Mauricio Chacra: That does it for this episode, guys. Thanks for tuning in. We’ll catch you guys in the next one.