These are the houses that inmates built Cooperative plan may reduce Minnesota's rural housing shortage

Minnesota State Roundup

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published April 1, 1998  | April 1998 issue

Minimum security inmates, state and community action agencies, and home mortgage lenders are cooperating on a new program that could ease the state's affordable housing shortage.

A pilot house was built in New York Mills earlier this year that could serve as a model for an expanded program. Using stress panel construction, sentence-to-service offenders housed in county jails assembled the house's shell, after which nearby technical college students installed most of the utilities. The house was then sold for under $45,000 to a first-time homeowner.

Stress panel homes planned for rural Minnesota will cost $45,000 on average, making them affordable for lower-income buyers, says Ted Niskanen, field representative for the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning, who was instrumental in bringing the project's players together.

Stress panel construction consists of polyfoam glued between two pieces of oriented strandboard and manufactured in 4-foot by 8-foot wall sections, with roof pieces 4 feet by 16 feet and 10 inches thick. It's an exceptionally strong material and provides good insulation, saving more than 25 percent on heating bills, says Steve Connell, housing developer at the Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council (CAC), which coordinated the building of the New York Mills house.

The work crew was secured through MINNCOR, the Department of Corrections prison industry program, at the Moose Lake facility. Once the lot and the infrastructure, like water and sewer, are in place, the shell goes up in two days, says Jim Gerdes, MINNCOR industry director at Moose Lake.

Two more houses are planned for this spring in Pelican Rapids, which is experiencing a large housing shortage due to the influx of Bosnian refugees coming to work at the area's poultry plant, according to Connell. And the program is expected to continue expanding to other rural counties.

With funding recently approved by the Minnesota Legislature, MINNCOR plans to purchase equipment to make panels and set up a prototype operation at Moose Lake. Inmates would build the wall and roof panels and could supply 50 houses per year to start, Gerdes says. Ideally, inmates would work on building panels four days a week and take a class in construction methods on the fifth day, Gerdes says.

Connell says the need for these low-priced homes is clear. He cites a situation in the small town of Sebeka, where realtors have been scrambling to find housing for 25 employees of a new manufacturing business. At the same time, Wadena is focusing on building housing, says Connell, adding that the town's slogan could be "drive to other towns for work, but bring your paycheck back to Wadena." South Dakota's building plan targets older residents

South Dakota's prison home-building project addresses a slightly different issue: how to supply appropriate housing for people 62 or older, or those who demonstrate a physical disability, in towns of fewer than 5,000 residents. And while the target group may be different from Minnesota's, the ultimate goal is the same: maintaining viable small towns.

Since the program began in 1996, 175 houses have been sold in more than 90 communities. According to Teresa Sterrett, sales supervisor for the South Dakota Housing Development Authority in Pierre, the program has been a great success for older people who no longer want or need to maintain large homes but desire to stay in their community. By freeing the larger, family homes, the community can provide housing for younger families who want to return home or live in a small town. The program "is keeping the smaller communities alive," Sterrett says.

The homes are traditional stickbuilt and constructed at Springfield State Penitentiary; interior items like cupboards and vanities are made at the Sioux Falls Penitentiary and shipped to Springfield for installation. The homes' dimensions are such that they can be hauled down the highway in one piece.

The state's Housing Development Authority sells the houses directly to the buyer or a nonprofit governmental group, which in turn sells to individual buyers. Buyers are responsible for laying foundations, building basements based on footing and foundation requirements supplied by the Housing Authority.

Sterrett says there has been little opposition to the program by commercial developers or unions. In fact, she says, more jobs are created in building foundations and basements, and garages and other add-ons that buyers want.

"The program works well for everyone," Sterrett says. "The inmates develop marketable job skills, younger families can find larger homes in small towns and the older people who want to stay in their community can."

All of the above are good for economic development as well, Sterrett says. One town, which will have a new manufacturing company move into its community soon, has purchased two houses and may purchase more. It is hoped that this will accommodate an influx of employees by freeing up some of the existing, larger homes.

Kathy Cobb