Roger and Michele Bird stand in front of their new Allegan home—built through a new program spearheaded by Community Action of Allegan County that connected vocational students to work on it as part of their certification. (Photo by Ryan Lewis)

Dual project: Many pitch in for affordable homes, training

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

There is a new house on Maple Street in Allegan that was built with many hands—and trained those hands, too.

Community Action of Allegan County’s Dual Community Development Program was two years in the making and had a lofty goal: to break the cycle of poverty in Allegan County.

Community Action director Lisa Evans said it not only incorporated entry-level training in the construction trades it also built an affordable, low-maintenance, energy efficient home.

“It’s been a two-year journey,” Evans said.

The end of that journey is in sight. Work on a 1,320-square-foot, two-bedroom home—built using students and the owners and their friends and family—is expected to wrap up this month.

Roger and Michele Bird said they originally had in mind a “tiny” home.

“But this is more a ‘simple’ home,” Roger Bird said. “It’s four walls on one level, no basement.”

They already had the land and had moved out of a larger home as the last of their four children had moved out. He heard about the need in February 2018 and offered it as a way to test the program.

“The idea of having that legacy of people’s lives being changed, people learning job skills, that was just right up our alley,” he said. “We’re excited for others who can benefit from it, get out of unsafe housing, get into good, affordable housing, learn job skills so they can support families. It’s much more than just a house. This is really about the community.”

The Birds had moved to Allegan 11 years ago to found The Bridge church; Roger Bird is pastor there.

 

Career

The project broke ground on the home, nicknamed the “Bird House,” in January with Matt Zomerlei’s Macatawa Homes as the general contractor. Throughout the project, students at the Michigan Career & Technical Institute near Pine Lake trained while working on the project.

MCTI director Paul Mulka said the residential post-secondary institution offers 13 different training programs, including pharmacy and certified nursing assistant training.

“Add to that, we’re a comprehensive vocational rehabilitation center,” Mulka said. “That’s a federal program that helps those with disabilities.”

Those in the Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate training worked on the Bird House, and Mulka said the average age of those in it was 19.

“We have 350 students, most with attention deficit, learning disabilities, autism—people who need hands-on training. Visual learners,” he said. “So we do a lot with assessment and careers to help people understand where their strengths are, then work to close their skill gaps and get them into vocation training that fits their abilities.”

Building the home was a perfect fit for the project-based learning that was a part of the certification, said Community Action’s program development coordinator, Christian Deuel.

“So this project leveraged the 80-percent hands-on component of the PAC as labor,” Deuel said. “The students were installing windows, hanging drywall, etc.”

As a contractor with 25 years experience in the industry, Zomerlei said he saw affordable housing as a necessary piece of the construction industry.

“I want to live in a world where everyone has a decent place to live,” he said. “It doesn’t seem right to live in a First World nation with continuing Third World challenges.”

Evans said the training was just as crucial as the fruit of all that labor. She related a story about a young man in adult education to whom she recommended training at MCTI. He faced transportation and housing issues the entire time. Evans said a combination of federal and state funding helped pay for it and he eventually was hired at a lumber yard, soon becoming a manager.

“He made an excellent wage,” she said. “For the first time he was saying he knew where he was going. He’s got a future, a path to take care of his grandmother, and himself.

“And that’s what it’s all about. It’s making a difference for anyone looking to make a family-sustaining wage.”

 

Partners

Deuel said the Birds will eventually end up with a mortgage, but it should be relatively small. The goal from the start had been to create a framework to make sure homes built this way would be worth more than their valuation when complete. That was the work of many, between donations from the dozens of local and regional businesses in Community Action’s Trade Ally Network to the many people who worked on the project. That includes the Birds, their family and many more volunteers.

Deuel said “We’ve received about $30,000 in discounts in products and materials. Macatawa Homes donated several thousand in labor. Every place from Home Depot to Sherwin Williams—it’s been magical; we’ve been to delighted to see partners come forth and we look forward to working with them in the future.”

Efficiency was key as well, as utility costs can inhibit income-limited families as well. The home’s design allows it to be heated with two heating and cooling units with little duct work.

“It looks like we’re going to score below a 50 for efficiency so that will be access to Consumers Energy home performance rebate,” Deuel said.

 

Looking forward

Deuel said he and the many others who worked to put the Dual Community Development Program together know it won’t instantly solve the need for affordable housing and ideal employment in Allegan County.

“It’s not the solution—it’s a solution,” he said.

Evans said the need for a program like this is pronounced.

At the ribbon-cutting for the home June 10, she said, “We know there are challenges. We know we’ve got 12 percent of people living in poverty in Allegan County, and another 26 percent who are income-constrained but employed.”

As the program continues to ramp up, she sees Community Action developing an application process for those interested in receiving a home through the project.

The Birds, for their part, intend to continue volunteering with the effort, helping find donors and businesses to participate. Their son and daughter-in-law will put the floor plan to use by building a similar home next door later this year.

Deuel said he was confident the effort could be replicated.

“Absolutely, the more we do it, the more efficient we’ll get at it and can scale it up,” he said. “As we continued to work on this, we really got the sense that the sky’s the limit.”

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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