On Wednesday, August 26, Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that his office would be granting three southeastern Colorado community colleges funds totaling $5 million, Trinidad State Junior College (TSJC), Lamar Community College, and Otero Junior College. The funds are specifically for supporting construction trades programs at the colleges to help spur housing development, something many officials say is needed desperately.
“Communities in Southeast Colorado have long faced challenges with blighted housing and shortages on available housing stock,” Weiser’s press release said. “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 of how costly it can end up being to remediate, repair, or renovate these types of houses, often exceeding their inherent resale value, many commercial homebuilders will not develop in the area and potentially viable housing instead becomes a nuisance.
To address this housing challenge, the Attorney General’s Office has created the new grant program, Colorado Partnership for Education and Rural Revitalization (COPERR), in the Office of Community Engagement. It is designed to both revitalize rural housing and support construction training programs at community colleges across Southeastern Colorado. TSJC specifically received a third of those funds ($1,666,000) for their building trades program.
“We are very excited to bring our construction trades program back to life starting in October,” TSJC President Dr. Rhonda Epper said.
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 trades programs deemed essential as well as other opportunities for students, especially in rural Colorado. As economic contributors 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.
TSJC’s 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 college has acquired or purchased via COPERR funds, Epper explained.
“Trinidad State is thrilled to be a partner in COPERR,” said Dr. Rhonda Epper, president of Trinidad State Junior 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.”
Students pay tuition for the workforce training courses, but will also receive a stipend after completing their work for the experiential learning component, allowing the homes to be remodeled or rebuilt for a lower, but still fair, cost.
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.
Wrote the release, “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.”
These 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.
Trinidad State Junior 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.