Home from prison gets new meaning
By ANDREW MCGINN
One local family will soon have the big house to thank for home sweet home.
The prefabricated, three-bedroom house that appeared last week in the 600 block of North Cedar Street left its unlikely factory — the medium-security Newton Correctional Facility — before 6 a.m. Feb. 26 and rolled into Jefferson before sundown.
The house is the first to be built as part of an innovative statewide program that seeks to supply rural Iowa with desperately needed affordable housing while simultaneously supplying prison inmates with valuable skills they can take back home after serving time.
“It’s a housing program, but it’s also a prison reform and workforce development program,” said Rick Hunsaker, executive director of Carroll-based Region 12 Council of Governments (COG), which serves Greene County in its six-county area. “We need plumbers, carpenters and electricians all over the state.”
Region 12 in 2017 developed a plan to build four affordable homes on city-owned lots in Jefferson — a plan City Administrator Mike Palmer called “proactive” and “experimental” at the time.
No one could have guessed just how “experimental” it would be.
Around the same time, the state’s 17 COGs began eyeing a successful program in South Dakota known as the Governor’s House program as a way to answer rural Iowa’s housing crisis.
“It’s an issue everywhere,” said Hunsaker, adding that he’s also heard from Scranton, Paton and Grand Junction about the need for new workforce housing.
More than 2,000 homes, each built by prison inmates, have been sold in South Dakota to income-qualified buyers since 1996.
“They look exactly like the one here,” Hunsaker said of the Governor’s Houses. “They gave us all their plans and all their advice.”
Homes for Iowa, a new nonprofit, was quickly blessed by the Iowa Department of Corrections and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who called for $1 million in funding for the program in her 2019 Condition of the State address, Hunsaker said
“We tried to light a fire,” he explained, noting that the appropriation never materialized.
Like much of Reynolds’ second-chance initiative for offenders — including her desire to restore the voting rights of felons after their sentences — Homes for Iowa is a political football.
Some legislators on the left are against it, according to Hunsaker, because the inmates aren’t being paid the minimum wage.
Rather, inmates are paid an allowance that is garnished for victim restitution and court debts.
However, some members of Reynolds’ own party are against it because some of the state’s building associations view Homes for Iowa as competition.
“If it’s competition,” Hunsaker said, “I want that list of builders who are willing to build houses in rural Iowa for under $175,000.”
Undeterred, Homes for Iowa set up shop last June at the Newton Correctional Facility, making due only with a grant from the Iowa Finance Authority that amounts to $60,000 per house for the first 20 houses built.
A 1,200-square-foot house built by Homes for Iowa costs $75,000 delivered, Hunsaker said, but doesn’t include a foundation or garage. Region 12 will end up investing $175,000 in the property at 606 N. Cedar St., and will then sell the home for its appraised value.
Because of state support, the same three-bedroom house in South Dakota costs $56,700 delivered, but doesn’t include a lot, foundation or floor coverings.
“They’re nice houses,” Hunsaker said.
The program’s second house is expected to be delivered to Perry on behalf of Habitat for Humanity.
Hunsaker expects to have the program’s first house at 606 N. Cedar St. on the market by June. By then, preparations will be underway on the lot next door for another house built by Iowa Prison Industries under contract to Homes for Iowa.
Region 12 has also contracted with Tri-County Lumber to build two additional homes in the same area, meeting the goal to build four new homes locally.
Hunsaker is particularly emboldened by South Dakota data showing a 35 percent drop in the recidivism rate of inmates taking part in the housing construction program over any other apprenticeship program.
“This is a home run to me,” he said.