Southeastern Colorado community colleges get a $5 million boost from Attorney General’s Office to revitalize rural housing, support trades programsCommunities in southeast Colorado have long faced challenges with blighted housing and shortages on available housing stock. This housing shortage is largely due to the age of houses and the lack of appropriately trained labor in the area to remediate blighted housing. A large number of these houses were constructed before 1939, with many of them containing asbestos, which is expensive to remediate. Because the cost to remediate, repair, or renovate the houses often exceeds their resale value, many commercial homebuilders will not develop in the area and potentially viable housing instead becomes a nuisance.
To address this housing challenge, Attorney General Phil Weiser on August 26, 2020 announced a new grant program in the Office of Community Engagement designed to both revitalize rural housing and support construction training programs at community colleges in Southeastern Colorado. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office, as part of its new Colorado Partnership for Education and Rural Revitalization (COPERR), will grant up to $5 million to Trinidad State College, Lamar Community College, and Otero Junior College to develop skilled trades programs that will address labor shortages and increase the availability of viable and affordable housing in Otero, Prowers, Las Animas, Crowley, Kiowa, Bent, and Baca counties. The program is funded through funds the state received from the national mortgage settlement, a settlement reached in 2012 after 49 states sued mortgage servicers after the 2008 financial crisis. Before the launch of this program, none of the funds obtained in this 2012 settlement were used in Southeastern Colorado.
“During my visits to Southeastern Colorado, leaders and residents have consistently raised the issue of the housing shortage in that region. Through a process of bringing together leaders from local government and the community colleges, we were able to build a partnership that will address workforce and housing shortages and contribute to the revitalization of those communities,” Weiser said. “Rural communities are a vital part of Colorado’s cultural and economic fabric, and I am proud to support programs that will provide opportunities for students while addressing this important housing need.”
Community colleges key to workforce training, economic development
Community colleges provide essential trades programs and other opportunities for students to pursue their goals, especially in rural Colorado. As economic mainstays in many areas of our state, these schools also have the infrastructure and expertise to build trades programs so students can help revitalize housing in their own communities.
“We applaud the Attorney General and his staff for their vision and partnership with several of our colleges to support trade and construction training programs in areas of the state that need it most,” said Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. “The COPERR program will no doubt have a positive impact in revitalizing our rural communities. I appreciate the program’s focus on and concern for Southeast Colorado, which is too often overlooked.”
Workforce training programs will have in-class learning and experiential learning, during which students will complete remodels and new construction of blighted properties that the community colleges have acquired or purchased via COPERR funds. “Trinidad State is thrilled to be a partner in COPERR,” said Dr. Rhonda Epper, president of Trinidad State College. “This investment is just the boost we need to help train more construction workers while addressing blighted housing in Trinidad and surrounding communities in Las Animas County.”
The students will pay tuition for the workforce training courses, but they will also receive a stipend upon completion of their work for the experiential learning component, allowing the homes to be remodeled or rebuilt for a lower, but still fair, cost.
“This program will be a game-changer for Southeast Colorado,” said Dr. Tim Alvarez, president of Otero Junior College. “Quality affordable housing and addressing our region’s shortage of trades professionals are two major components to revitalizing our rural communities.”
Communities and their colleges will utilize and expand upon resources already available
Representatives from the cities of Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad have participated in stakeholder meetings since March 2020 and have developed a working inventory of properties within their communities that need to be remediated. Although the community colleges will start with renovations in these communities, they will expand their programs to address blighted housing—with a goal of remediation—in each of the seven southeastern-most Colorado counties and work to maximize the reach and impact of the program.
The three community colleges will also be working with local governments in Southeast Colorado, in conjunction with state and federal government entities, to ensure proper disposal of waste materials generated through COPERR. Once the community colleges complete the remediation of a property, they will sell it back to the community and reinvest the proceeds into COPERR.
“We are ready to get to work with our community partners to solve this critical Southeast Colorado need, and we are thrilled to offer students a new hands-on, relevant workforce experience that will benefit our communities greatly,” said Dr. Linda Lujan, president of Lamar Community College.
Trinidad State College and Lamar Community College will deploy construction programs as early as fall of 2020, while Otero Junior College will conduct a needs assessment in 2020 and deploy its construction and historic preservation program in the fall of 2021.
“I am inspired by the commitment of these community colleges and local government to reinvigorating their communities,” said Weiser. “I am excited about what we can do working together to build a stronger future for this important part of our state. We are working together to build a future for residents in Southeastern Colorado that includes reasonable, affordable housing and job opportunities.”
Learn more about COPERR and monitor the schools’ progress at coag.gov/coperr.