BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Iowa may start using state offenders to start to replenish housing stock across the state.
A program that has been in place in South Dakota’s state prison system for close to 20 years is now gaining momentum in Iowa, and Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Mike Norris has been at the forefront of the program.
The program would utilize offenders at Newton Correctional Facility to build two and three-bedroom homes for low- to moderate-income families on property adjacent to the prison. Under current plans, the offenders would be paid $1/hour for the work, an average wage for offenders.
The program is a collaboration of the Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa Association of Councils of Governments (ICOG), Homes for Iowa and other economic development officials.
Norris said discussions about the program started almost five years ago. An appropriations bill was introduced to get some of the start up funding during the 2018 legislative session, but the bill didn’t get through.
During Gov. Kim Reynold’s Condition of the State address, the Governor endorsed the program and encouraged the Department of Corrections to find some funds to build the fence around the construction sites.
Norris said the site will consist of gravel pads where contractors can put in footings and the homes will be built on blocks that can be lifted up so trailers can come in and pick up the homes and deliver them around the state.
He said it would neat if Fort Madison was able to get one of the first homes. But initially the homes will be more expensive as everyone gets acclimated to the program, and that may make it difficult to get one of the first to southeast Iowa.
“I think it would tell a great story to have one of the first homes, and that may or may not happen. One of the big challenges is it will cost a ton of money at first,” he said.
“If not one of the first four, it could be one of the first batch in the first year or two of the program. Fort Madison has a long history of corrections going back to the pre-state, territorial days. It’s just a great story for the city to have the DOC and the offenders giving back to the community in some sense.”
There is currently no appropriations in the legislature for funding of the project so a private/public partnership has been created, which resulted in a non-profit Homes for Iowa to manage the finances.
The pro forma is to do 875 homes in 10 years. To do all of that, and that includes a lot of assumptions, we would need $3 million in start up and potentially $4.75 million in lines of credit.
He said the non-profit had it’s first meeting on March 13.
Checklists will be in place for people interested in the homes who would contact a governmental agency in the area or a member of the ICOG and start the process. That would include making steps such as making sure a lot is available and financing was in place.
Funds from the purchased homes would then be recycled into the program. Norris said he hopes at some point that would create an internal funding stream and outside funding wouldn’t be needed.
“Once their side is ready, we would take a down payment and put the order in with Homes for Iowa and Iowa Prison Industries and the house would start to be built. In the meantime on that site a crawl space or basement would be put it, grading, utilities – anything they need to do get the house delivered. The COG would be the go between for the buyer and Prison Industry and Homes for Iowa.”
There has been some push back from outside labor advocates who say the $1/hour wage isn’t sufficient for the work being done.
Norris said that’s an issue for the state Department of Corrections to determine, but he said the offenders will come out of the program with skilled training in areas such as plumbing, HVAC, carpentry, and trim carpentry and there is value to that.
He said the DOC is anxious to get the program rolling because at Newton there aren’t enough jobs for the offenders to keep them busy and this would help with that problem.
“Newton and DOC officials are excited about it,” he said. “Not only does it give offenders jobs while they’re in, but when they get out and have skills they are employable and that is shown to reduce recidivism, or the offender returning to jail.
The groups have established price range for the homes at around $60,000. He said out of the gate, the homes will cost much more than that to build, but once all the initial training is done, that should be marketable price.
Norris, through SEIRPC, had initially approached the Department of Corrections to see if they could build homes in Fort Madison, but he said the logistics didn’t work out and Newton became the place of interest.
In South Dakota, offenders are turning out a home every six months and sometimes shorter. Norris said sometime crew variations can affect the time to build, but there may be an opportunity to do some prefab work if crews can get homes cycled through and build up inventory.