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Hammering Home Skills

by Carl Hoffman

"Come on in," beckons Pam Stanley, grinning from ear to ear on the front porch of her new house in Coeburn, Virginia. Inside, the cozy brown bungalow looks like a film set of the perfect American home. There's plush wall-to-wall carpeting, central air conditioning, and bedrooms for Stanley and each of her two children. And it's as neat and orderly as if a professional maid had just swept through. Says Stanley, sitting on her sofa, "It's been the best year of my life."

Last year Stanley was an unemployed single mom living in public housing. Now she has a full-time job and is about to own the house of her dreams. What's even more surprising is that Stanley helped build the house. "I loved it," she says of the construction, "even though it was the hardest thing I've ever done."

Stanley owes her reversal of fortune to Wise County, Virginia's If I Had a Hammer Housing Construction and Rehabilitation Training Program, which teaches the construction trades to local men and women receiving county housing assistance, while rehabilitating the county's stock of housing. Initial funding was provided by grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the Virginia Department of Education. When the program works perfectly, as it did in Stanley's case, the trainee finds a full-time job (and gets off of public assistance). A blighted piece of property gets renovated. And when the renovated property is sold (in this case to Stanley herself), the county gets its construction money back. Individuals living in or waiting for public housing get priority in buying the renovated houses.

"It all fits together," says Charles McConnell, executive director of the Wise County Redevelopment and Housing Authority, "and it's really gratifying to see the improvement it has made in people's lives."

Filling Two Needs

The genesis for If I Had a Hammer came in 1996, when McConnell and housing authority colleague Steve Garrett got together with James Price, director of the Wise County Skills Center, Rebecca Scott from the county adult education program, and local contractors to address a vexing problem. An area of closing coal mines and steep mountains in the far south-western tip of Virginia, Wise County suffers from an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent and a large amount of substandard housing. Although McConnell had successfully attracted grant money to rehab houses and install indoor plumbing, he had been less successful when it came to finding contractors to do the work.

"We got way behind on contracts," says McConnell. "The jobs are really competitive, they require sealed bids, they're relatively small, and there's just not that much profit in them." Complicating the situation was a simple, yet counterintuitive, fact: in a region with high unemployment, the construction industry was scrambling to find qualified workers. And with two new federal prisons under construction in the area, the need for new housing was projected to grow more acute than ever. "We've had a major economic development effort to diversify away from the coal industry," says McConnell, "and the housing industry will continue to need skilled workers, so that seemed a natural area to develop."

During a series of meetings in 1996, an idea arose. Why couldn't unemployed residents of county public and Section 8 housing be trained in the construction trades by working on the properties that the housing authority had slated for renovation (which would then be available to low-income buyers)? Jim McElrath, a rehabilitation specialist for the authority and a licensed contractor, confessed that he was always having to train people anyway, so he might as well make it official. While we've got them, mused the skills center's Price, we could get them back into school for a year with an eye toward getting their general equivalency diplomas. And then, once they'd been trained in the trades, they could either go to work for private contractors or get hired on by the county, if it had the job openings.

In 1997 If I Had a Hammer purchased its first house for renovation. Actually, house might be too fancy a word. The walls and ceiling of the house were collapsing and, having been condemned by the county, it was slated for demolition. Project leaders decided to put together a crew of five, supervised by McElrath. When the call for applicants went out through the county's public housing projects, 20 people applied for the five spots. Solomon Jones, recently jobless after an area coal mine closed, was one. "I thought I'd work in the mines until I retired," says Jones, "but it didn't happen and this seemed like a good opportunity to get into carpentry, and maybe get my contractor's license."

Pam Stanley was another. A former bookkeeper, her job had ended about the same time as her marriage, and she found herself in public housing. "I have two kids and I was unemployed," she says, "and it was a bad time for me. I'd worked really hard through the years trying to make it, and I had nothing. But I'd set my goals on getting a house, and I really wanted my kids to be happy, so I put in an application."

Under the tutelage of McElrath, Stanley, Jones, and three other crew members all but knocked the house down, rebuilding it from the ground up while learning everything from pouring footings for the foundation to carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, drywalling, and painting. "I'd go home so dirty my kids hardly recognized me," says Stanley. The five worked 32 hours a week for minimum wage. Every week they attended eight hours of class, without pay. "I'd drive the kids by the house and I'd say that maybe we could live there one day," says Stanley. And the program helped trainees with child care, transportation, and whatever other support services were necessary to help trainees stick with the job.

After five months the house was finished at a cost of about $40,000, some $10,000 less than a private contractor would have charged, says community development program director Garrett. Impressed by Stanley's initiative, the housing authority hired her as a full-time office assistant, and she moved into the new house, hoping to qualify for the county's low-income buyer's program. Solomon Jones became a full-time supervisor. And a third member of the crew was hired as a custodian and building engineer by the public school system.

Proud Owners

Today, a year and a half after the first hammer swing, seven houses have been completed. Earl Fields and Carol Smith, who had been living in a subsidized apartment with their five-year-old daughter, are the proud owners of one. "I would never have been able to buy a house without this program," says Fields. "The workers did what they said they'd do to the house, and I'm tickled to death. You know," he says, showing off his new kitchen, crafted by Hammer trainees and as clean-looking as a hospital operating room, "I've never had much in my life, and now we have something. I'm proud of myself, and we try to take care of it."

Bill Shelton, director of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the project funding, says, "After hearing all the talk about welfare reform, it's truly refreshing to be involved with folks who actually roll up their sleeves and go out and work together in an innovative way to make a difference in people's lives. The collaboration of the housing authority, the adult education program, and the skills center, with support from ARC and our department, has developed a model that is being emulated across Virginia."

When the need arises, If I Had a Hammer trainees renovate housing authority rental apartments. And on this hot fall day across the county from Coeburn at the Inman Village apartments, Richard "Mayor" Griffith, Wendell Skeen, and Michael Angelucci are spreading drywall compound and painting an apartment whose last tenants were, well, not very gentle housekeepers. "I have two kids and I wanted a better life," says Angelucci, squeezed in a closet with paintbrush in hand. "I knew a little about electrical work before coming on board, but I've learned a lot about carpentry and framing and finishing work, and hopefully when this is over I can get a good job." "It's hard to sit in class for a whole day when you're not getting paid and you're trying to make a living," confesses Skeen, "but I'm real weak in math, so I guess it's a good thing to be doing."

Of the 17 Hammer apprentices so far, six have found full-time jobs, six are still completing their year, three have quit, and just two remain unemployed. "You look at the numbers [of people and houses in the program] and they don't seem that great," says Price, "but you're influencing people's lives. All of them were takers, and now they're givers."

Indeed, it's one thing to hear about statistics, quite another to see Earl Fields in his kitchen or listen to laid-off coal miner Solomon Jones optimistically talk about getting his contractor's license, or wander though Pam Stanley's new house, her 10-year-old daughter's cheerleading skirt neatly pressed and laid out on her bed. "If it wasn't for If I Had a Hammer," says Stanley, "I think I would have had to move away, which I didn't want to do. There is something about these mountains that is special. It's home, and now we're doing better than we've ever done in our lives."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.