Participants in a year-old program are helping Duluth meet its need for both affordable housing and more high-paying jobs. They’re also helping themselves in the process.

The Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority has joined forces with Community Action Duluth to train people in the construction industry and reclaim on-the-brink blighted property, transforming it into attractive housing.

With the construction industry operating in high gear these days, the Duluth HRA has sometimes struggled to line up contractors for projects. But Jill Keppers, the authority’s executive director, had an idea: What if the HRA could team up with another local organization looking to provide attractive career paths for people?

Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jill Keppers talks with a visitor Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, inside a West Duluth house being renovated.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jill Keppers talks with a visitor Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, inside a West Duluth house being renovated. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Jeff Longenecker, executive director of Community Action Duluth, recognized the opportunity as a potential perfect fit. He noted that his organization had access to a ready supply of people hungry for training and meaningful employment, and the HRA, with plenty of work to do, could readily provide the demand for their services.

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Keppers said the resulting Community Construction Program is already making a difference.

“This is a way to move the needle on poverty for one person at a time, or even five to 10 people at a time. It’s also a way to build up Duluth and help property values in general,” she said.

Richard Howell, crew coach for the Community Construction Program
Richard Howell, crew coach for the Community Construction Program

Richard Howell, a crew coach for the Community Construction Program, said they're providing "real hands-on work experience and a chance to develop a good work ethic."

"Our crew members learn the importance of being able to communicate with one another and how to work as a team," he said. "And with the experience they gain, they’ll have the opportunity to get good-paying jobs by the time they finish the program.”

Along the way, program participants also earn $16 an hour.

Graduates of the program can earn a carpentry certificate from Northwood Technical College, formerly known as Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. And so far, seven out of 10 original program participants have done so.

Of that group, two people were hired by local contractors; one was promoted to construction manager; another was accepted into a union apprenticeship with Ironworkers Local 512 beginning early next year; and three others decided to continue their hands-on learning through the program.

Howell said the results have been nothing short of life-changing.

“This program and the skills the crew members learned have catapulted them into a better life," he said.

Ron Gurno, left, and Brett Jones work Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, on the front step of the former tax-forfeited house now under renovation. Gurno graduated from the Community Construction Program and is now its manager.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Ron Gurno, left, and Brett Jones work Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, on the front step of the former tax-forfeited house now under renovation. Gurno graduated from the Community Construction Program and is now its manager. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Crew member Ron Gurno was promoted to program manager upon his graduation.

With stable employment and growing knowledge about how to tackle even the most ambitious home improvement projects, Gurno said he’s now in the market to buy a house of his own, likely investing a hefty dose of personal sweat equity into the effort.

“Hard work pays off,” he said.

Longenecker said one of the crew members referred to Gurno’s ascent in the program as “inspirational.”

Keppers said many of the crew members were referred to Community Action Duluth through Life House, a Duluth organization that helps homeless and street youth ages 14-24 achieve fulfilling and productive lives.

“Some of them come from households where they may not have had a stable family with working parents,” said Howell, noting that sometimes they need a little extra encouragement and support.

With a bit of help, Howell said he has seen program participants step up to the job.

“These students have shown me they have the ability to succeed,” he said.

Brett Jones, from left, Richard Howell and Cheyenne Hanson fasten a post to the front steps of the West Duluth house they are renovating Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. 
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Brett Jones, from left, Richard Howell and Cheyenne Hanson fasten a post to the front steps of the West Duluth house they are renovating Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Brett Jones said he had some rudimentary construction experience — such as building a shack with his foster father — before starting the program a little more than six months ago. But he had never taken on a project of such magnitude as remodeling a house basically from scratch.

“We’re doing things I didn’t think I could do before,” Jones said, expressing his hopes that the job skills he’s learning now will lead to new opportunities in the future.

Cheyenne Hanson joined the program about the same time as Jones and said she had no previous background in construction.

“It’s awesome getting to learn all this stuff,” she said. “Now, I plan to do this kind of work for the rest of my life.”

One year in, the pilot program’s crew is nearing completion of its first project. The HRA purchased a tired tax-forfeited Denfeld bungalow and set a crew to work on it, completely gutting the interior and remodeling it from top to bottom.

What an upstairs bedroom looked like before the Community Construction Program began renovation on the West Duluth Home.
Contributed / Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority
What an upstairs bedroom looked like before the Community Construction Program began renovation on the West Duluth Home. Contributed / Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority

“These students started from ground zero. They tore this house down to the studs. It was just a shell when they started,” Howell said.

With the project nearing completion, Keppers expects the refreshed home will be ready for listing in November. The program’s stated goal is to price the house at a level that’s affordable for a family earning no more than 115% of the area median income, but, ideally, she aims to keep the price affordable for a family making just 80% of that amount.

An upstairs bedroom in a West Duluth house under renovation Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. 
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
An upstairs bedroom in a West Duluth house under renovation Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The HRA already has acquired its next distressed tax-forfeited property to keep the project going, with an initial investment of $70,000.

The HRA had hoped to keep the total project cost below $175,000, but Keppers said high building material costs during the pandemic probably will cause the program’s first home to exceed that budget.

Additional support staff brought on to help participants succeed on the job also have added to the cost, said Jeff Longenecker, executive director of Community Action Duluth.

Keppers is not overly concerned, however, given the benefits of the program.

“We don’t have to make money. We just have to not lose too much,” she said.

Keppers and Longenecker noted that the project seems to have inspired adjacent property owners to tackle significant home improvements of their own.

Cheyenne Hanson and Richard Howell work Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, outside the West Duluth house they are renovating. 
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Cheyenne Hanson and Richard Howell work Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, outside the West Duluth house they are renovating. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Based on the Community Construction Program’s encouraging start, Longenecker said he has every confidence it will have staying power.

“I think the potential that we’ve seen, with this being the first year and understanding the learning curve and the growing pains involved, even with that, it has been wildly successful in what we’ve been able to get done,” he said.

“It is fulfilling such a need for labor and for contractors looking to find carpenters and for some of our substandard housing stock that needs improvement, I’m committed to keep it ongoing, Longenecker said.