A statewide association that provides technical assistance to Iowa cities, counties and businesses is backing an idea that could address the state’s housing shortage and provide prisoners who’ll be paroled some marketable job skills.

The Iowa Association of Councils of Governments is offering to create a nonprofit called Homes for Iowa to operate the Rural Homes Initiative. Rick Hunsaker, executive director of Region 12 of the Iowa Council of Governments, says the initiative would be modeled after a successful program in a neighboring state.

“What they do in South Dakota, have been doing for 20 years, is having prisoners construct stick-built houses that are then transported anywhere in the state of South Dakota and it is for workforce housing, essentially low- and moderate-income housing,” he says, “new houses that can be placed anywhere.”

Hunsaker and others who are urging legislators to try the same program here suggest it could be called the Rural Housing Initiative. They envision having prisoners at the Newton Correctional facility build homes that would then be shipped to areas in need of affordable housing. Advocates for this initiative are asking legislators to commit about $4 million state tax dollars to cover start-up costs.

“It requires a new fence to be built. It requires the site work to be done and the platforms ad pileons to be constructed and installed so that we can build houses on that. It requires us to have a large warehouse so that we’re able to bulk-buy supplies,” Hunsaker says. “…It requires the trucks which are specialized, that they have jacks that can lower them down, get underneath the houses and bring them out.”

Advocates on this program envision paying the prisoners for their work, most of which would be used to cover fines, restitution, court costs and room and board. According to Hunsaker, it will also cut back on crime. Inmates involved in South Dakota’s home construction program have a 35 percent lower rate of committing another crime compared to the general prison population. Hunsaker is among those hoping to build a coalition of groups to lobby legislators to authorize this program. The idea won initial committee approval in the state senate this past year, but did not wind up in the legislature’s final budget plan.

(By Nathan Konz, KCIM, Carroll)