Bruell column: Why oppose a win-win strategy for creating jobs and workforce-housing?

Debbie Bruell

“Wonderful” and “transformative” is how Rifle City Manager Tommy Klein described the new workforce training center and modular home production facility being developed in his community. 

The center will train high school students and graduates in some of the latest digital construction technology; attract good-paying advanced manufacturing jobs to the region; and make it more financially feasible for local communities, hospitals and school districts to build affordable, deed-restricted housing for their employees.

The training center and production facility is being developed as a partnership between the City of Rifle, Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley, and Colorado River BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services). It will produce modular housing units from recycled steel, using a digital construction system. 

The center will significantly reduce Habitat’s construction costs, enabling them to produce over 100 units per year, primarily for local Habitat projects. Other units will be sold to Habitat affiliates in neighboring counties as well as communities, school districts, hospitals, and others interested in building affordable, deed-restricted housing for local workers and residents. 

Once operating, the center will employ up to 30 people and train as many as 50 students each year. According to Ken Haptonstall, Director of Colorado River BOCES, research has found that the only thing keeping advanced manufacturing firms from locating on the Western Slope is the lack of a trained workforce. This project will address that challenge and likely attract new companies to our region.

Haptonstall, City Manager Klein and Gail Schwartz, President of our local Habitat for Humanity, attended the Feb. 27 Garfield County Commissioners meeting to request a letter of support to accompany their federal grant application to help fund the facility.  

The commissioners declined their request for a letter, with justifications ranging from completely baseless to outright insulting. 

Commissioner John Martin questioned the feasibility of the project given that the supply chain for steel “is drying up.” Schwartz reminded him that these houses would be constructed of recycled steel from wrecked cars, of which there is an endless supply.

Commissioner Mike Samson said he has “mixed feelings” because he dislikes apartments and townhouses:  “I don’t want somebody living on the other side of the wall of me — above me, below me, and to the side of me … I. Like. My. House.” 

Martin compared the project to government housing, which, he said, often leads to “an unfortunate set of humanity moving in and running everybody else out.” 

Earlier in the meeting, Samson made similarly degrading comments about people seeking affordable housing: “We can’t give everybody everything. We can’t build a house for everyone for free and give them money to live on.”

The idea that affordable housing is for lazy people in search of government handouts is false and offensive. In every Habitat neighborhood, people purchase their home in addition to providing 500 hours of sweat equity. These proud home owners are hardworking members of our communities hoping to purchase a reasonably-priced home close to their place of work. Habitat residents are teachers, health care workers, municipal employees and other critical members of our workforce.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said his opposition was “philosophical as much as anything.” Supporting a nonprofit project like this would fly in the face of “private enterprise, American capitalism … the free trade market,” he explained, giving Habitat an unfair competitive advantage over private businesses. He punctuated his disdain for the project by saying, “Don’t come back and be asking us for money…”

In fact, no private companies in the county are currently committed to manufacturing deed-restricted homes. As Schwartz later said to me, “If the private sector were capable of solving this problem, we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.”

According to Samson, “When the government gets involved, there are winners and losers. It creates a mess sometimes, and I don’t want to be involved in that mess.”

His comment encapsulates the commissioners’ typical approach of non-involvement, whether the issue is housing, jobs, child care or traffic. Apparently, the only involvement they can stomach is trying to drum up high-paying oil and gas jobs, an effort that, for over a decade, has essentially proven fruitless.

Given the current commissioners’ general disdain for government, I can’t help but wonder why they have chosen to serve in these government positions in the first place. We deserve leaders willing to move past a “non-involvement” stance and actively address the pressing issues facing our county.

I hope you’ll join me in urging the commissioners to step up as active partners in this new project. While not a panacea for our housing crisis, it is a significant step in the right direction. 

To better understand the complexities of this issue and solutions being considered, attend Habitat’s regional housing summit on March 22. (Register here: Solving the Housing Crisis.)

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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