Affordable housing essay: Student labor cuts costs, provides job training

Heath Moody, Construction Management, Building Science and Sustainability Technologies, A-B Tech Courtesy of A-B Tech

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series in which local experts were asked: “What would it take to solve the Asheville area’s affordable housing problem?”

Like many other parts of the country, Western North Carolina has been experiencing an affordable housing crisis for several years, starting even before the 2008 recession. And while Asheville’s construction industry has picked back up and there are more job opportunities, we still struggle with affordable housing.

Several great local organizations are trying to address the problem, but as often happens with challenging issues, it becomes intertwined with other socio-economic concerns that require us to take a broader perspective. Our health care costs, for instance, are the highest in the world, yet many people become sick due to poor indoor air quality in their home. This is especially true for some lower-quality rental homes. Living in an “affordable” house that triggers thousands in medical bills is counterproductive and only exacerbates poverty. The same is true for a home that isn’t energy-efficient: It becomes less affordable when energy bills are comparable to the monthly rent or mortgage payment.

Whatever approach we take to affordable housing, it must include healthy, sustainable construction practices for the homes to be truly affordable in the long term. As a board member for the WNC Green Building Council, I’ve been pleased to see Habitat For Humanity, Mountain Housing Opportunities and other groups get their houses certified through the council’s Green Built NC program, Energy Star, LEED or SystemVision. These certified homes give homeowners better indoor air quality and energy bills as low as $25 a month. Organizations such as the Green Building Council are critical in increasing our homes’ performance and health while lowering homeowners’ utility costs.

One very promising approach is to partner with community colleges, high schools and four-year colleges on programs that are looking for hands-on projects for job-training purposes. Students become more engaged and have a greater sense of ownership in the projects and the community. After all, many of them are struggling with the same issues themselves.

Such partnerships may not produce enough homes to meet all the needs, but they can cut labor costs while giving students real-world training. At A-B Tech, we’ve engineered our construction and sustainability programs to focus on live projects, and students have built affordable homes, including a super-efficient tiny house. Educational budget cuts caused us to lose our construction facility, but we’re currently seeking a comparable space so we can continue to serve the community in this way.

Community colleges and technical trade schools have many resources and, in partnership with other governmental organizations and nonprofits, we can offer our communities sustainable, affordable housing while helping build a healthy economy.

— Heath Moody
Construction Management, Building Science and Sustainability Technologies
Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College

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