A class with lots of home work

Posted Jan. 26, 2009, at 9:01 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:03 a.m.

DEXTER, Maine — Tri County Technical Center students enrolled in the building and trades program are doing their part to help some Maine families have affordable, easy-to-heat housing.

The school has partnered with the Penquis agency to build three Moosehead cottage-style homes over three years for income-eligible families who live in pre-1976 mobile homes in Milo, LaGrange, Alton or Brownville. The 29 students enrolled in the program are donating their labor while learning on the job.

“This is a great experience for the kids — they’re learning job skills and real-life skills,” John Guay, building and trades instructor, said Monday. “I think it’s a good project. Plus, they’re working on replacing low-income housing.”

Of the more than 6,500 Maine families living in pre-1976 mobile homes, most of which are drafty and hard to heat, 4,200 receive home-heating assistance from the state, according to Michael Bush, a Penquis housing developer.

Penquis serves Piscataquis, Penobscot and Knox counties, and Bush said it’s necessary to stretch the dollar and partner with every organization possible to bring better housing, which, in turn, reduces the consumption of oil in substandard mobile homes.

The need is urgent, according to Bush. For example, last year 24 families in pre-1976 mobile homes received heating assistance in Dover-Foxcroft, 25 families in Milo, 53 in Dexter and 32 in Corinth, he said.

“Not all mobile homes are bad, but we can pretty much assume those older ones are,” Bush said recently. Pre-1976 mobile homes are targeted because they don’t meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standards. Penquis has the ability to help income-eligible families who live in substandard housing that needs repair, but state and federal policies exclude older mobile homes, Bush said.

“We’ve been trying to find ways that we can serve this population that is living in some of the worst housing,” he said. The people who live in the homes are largely independent — that is, they are not living in subsidized housing or getting government housing assistance, he said.

According to the 2000 Census, 43 percent of the total occupied homes in Alton are mobile homes, compared with 38 percent in Kenduskeag, 38 percent in Greenbush and 19 percent in Atkinson. In comparison, the statewide average is 12 percent and the average in West Virginia, a relatively warm state, is 17 percent.

Bush said MaineHousing and Rural Development work closely with his agency to put together packages to help improve the living conditions of income-eligible residents. Through these efforts, Penquis has helped about 35 families in the past eight years with new housing.

Enlisting all the help it can, Bush said, Penquis was able to help the towns of Washington, Union and Waldoboro get a Community Development Block Grant to replace seven homes, and it helped Exeter obtain a CDBG to replace a local aging and nonwinterized home.

Even private businesses are working to help Penquis with housing needs. TD Banknorth donated $20,000, and the Maine Community Foundation gave a $7,500 grant to help explore options and ways to ramp up the production of new homes. A recent Rural Development grant of $57,000 is being used to pilot an exploratory program in which Penquis will work intensively with town officials in Dexter, Brownville, Millinocket and Greenbush, which have a large number of families who receive home-heating assistance.

“We plan to approach this from a multifaceted angle, like a testing laboratory, if you will,” Bush said of the pilot program. Penquis wants to work with the towns to identify their housing needs, work to develop strategies to address the needs and find some resources to carry out the action plan, he added.

It was more than a year ago that Penquis began working with Alton, LaGrange, Milo and Brownville, towns that also have a high percentage of mobile homes. The object of the program was to replace the older mobile homes with stick-built buildings, Bush said. Using private contractors, the modest ranch buildings typically cost $90,000 to $120,000 to construct, but many families can’t take on a loan for that much money, he said. That’s where the Tri County Vocational Technical Center entered the picture, according to Bush.

The students — from SADs 41, 68, 4, 46 and 48 — are able to build a 14-foot-by-34-foot home with porch for about $25,000 by donating their labor. They will do everything on the house but the plumbing, electricity and drywall finishing.

For Desiree Sutherland, a Nokomis senior and one of two girls enrolled in the program, the project has given her a “warm feeling” despite working outside during the bitter cold of late.

“It kind of makes me feel happy that I can actually do something to help somebody else,” she said.

Knowing that a family will be warm in a new house that she helped build is well worth the effort, Sutherland added.

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