Communities across the Federal Reserve’s Eighth District have sought to make housing more accessible by expanding access to homebuyer education and down payment assistance. These endeavors have proven to be beneficial, as residents are seeing increased access to credit and homeownership. But, homeownership is most often possible when communities have land prime for development or when move-in ready homes are already on the market—unfortunately, that is not always the case in rural areas.
Missouri’s North East Community Action Corporation (NECAC) understands this challenge firsthand. Of the 12 counties in their service area, nine are rural. According to Carla Plotts, NECAC’s deputy director for housing development, housing stock is the largest of many challenges facing northeast Missouri. While the region has a wealth of land, home and neighborhood development has not kept up with area demand. Moreover, the existing housing stock is older and in need of repair. Since these challenges make finding safe and affordable housing difficult, resolving this problem has required unorthodox thinking.
Several years ago, NECAC staff began researching successful housing development programs and came across South Dakota’s initiative, The Governor’s House.1 Created in 1996, The Governor’s House has since built and sold over 2,000 affordable homes to low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled using skilled inmates within the state’s corrections system as contractors. This method provides the incarcerated with workforce training, while also providing residents and communities with new, affordable housing options.
After learning about South Dakota’s success, Plotts began searching for a way to implement a similar program in her area—resulting in ASPIRE Homes (set to launch in spring 2020). Inmates at the Northeast Correction Center in Bowling Green, Mo., will receive training from the local carpenters union and eventually be tasked with building high-quality, affordable units. Additionally, NECAC will vet buyers and provide any necessary homeownership or financial counseling before the purchase. The culmination will result in new home development and an increase in buyer preparation throughout the region.
The first homes to be constructed will be 500 square feet and feature a one bedroom/one bathroom layout. Home production is expected to take a total of two to three months, with the hope that the process will speed up when more inmates are trained and logistical hitches have been remedied. Eventually, ASPIRE will begin building and selling two- and three-bedroom homes to accommodate the needs of larger families.
Although Plotts believes the term “win-win” is thrown around entirely too often, she believes this program warrants the phrase. Residents will soon have a supply of new, energy-efficient housing at an accessible price point, making it easier for them to maintain comfortable lives in northeast Missouri. Rural communities who have struggled to attract large employers due to a lack of workforce housing could slowly see increased neighborhood development. In time, more homeowners and neighborhoods should stabilize municipalities’ tax bases; thus, creating the opportunity for important investments in infrastructure and education.
The inmates receiving the training and building the homes are honing important technical skills. Additionally, the on-the-job experience makes them eligible to earn the necessary certifications to immediately qualify for an apprenticeship with one of the carpenters union’s signature contractors upon their release. Over time, this will pump dozens of new workers into a high-demand industry and help the formerly incarcerated effectively transition back into their communities. Most notably, as studies show immediate access to employment reduces recidivism, the program may help decrease Missouri’s overall prison population.2
ASPIRE has come to fruition due to partnerships with several community stakeholders including the Missouri Department of Corrections, the U.S. Department of Justice, and government officials. As the program launches, these partnerships will remain an integral part of its success and local financial institutions with Community Reinvestment Act obligations may find an opportunity to get involved. NECAC and several aspects of ASPIRE are well positioned to qualify for CRA credit as they incorporate affordable housing, workforce development, the revitalization/stabilization of a non-metropolitan distressed/underserved middle-income geographies, and community services targeted at low- and moderate-income (LMI) individuals. Moreover, such a holistic approach to multiple areas of community need may meet the responsive, innovative, and/or flexible threshold as described in regulation guidance.3
Community development challenges in rural America are often exacerbated by a lack of attention and resources. Nevertheless, the men and women who call these areas home care deeply about their community and are constantly searching for innovative solutions to multi-faceted problems. The staff at NECAC is no different. ASPIRE has the opportunity to make an impact by increasing affordable housing stock, encouraging neighborhood development, boosting the areas workforce and lowering recidivism. By every stretch of the imagination, that can surely be called a win-win.