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Colorado Attorney General Weiser tours TSJC, checks out new trades programs

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“I’m impressed with the college, the program and I’ve been really impressed by the people here,” said Colorado State Attorney General Phil Weiser following a tour of Trinidad State and the building trades program Friday, Oct. 9.

“Here is the important thing to know,” said Weiser. “Around about 2012 we were fighting these banks that took advantage of people during the housing crisis (the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis). One of the requirements of that settlement was to spend a portion of the funds on housing. I asked ‘how much was spent on housing for southeast Colorado?’ And the answer was ‘None.’ That led us to thinking about an employee-training program and to working through the state’s community colleges. I’m a big fan of community colleges.”

The state’s Attorney General’s Office has granted $5 million in funds to Trinidad State and fellow southeast Colorado community colleges Lamar Community College and Otero Junior College. The funds are to be used specifically for supporting construction trades programs at the colleges to help spur housing development. As the attorney general indicated, the funds were 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.

Said Weiser, “Communities 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.”  

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 created the 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. Trinidad State received a third of those funds ($1,666,000) for their building trades programs.

Said Trinidad State President Rhonda Epper in August, “We are very excited to bring our construction trades program back to life starting in October.”

Weiser saw the beginning of that new life, referenced by Epper, Friday.

“We had set up a meeting (with the colleges) before COVID-19 hit. They were all in and we got to work,” said Weiser. “It was a challenge, but we got to see some of that paid off and I’m very confident now this is going to work for many reasons. One of those reasons is the leadership in Trinidad. Dr. Epper is the real-deal and Keith Gibson (Trinidad State Program Director) has been unbelievable to work with. And there is a legacy of a building trades program in Trinidad. We’re building on that legacy, historically speaking for the trades program there — and we’re bringing that back today.”  

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.

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.

Said Epper, “Trinidad State is thrilled to be a partner in COPERR. 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.”

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. Weiser was able to preview some of the blighted properties the college is considering rehabilitating.

“You have more people interested in housing than we have stock. That is not a good situation. You can build up housing and we believe that can fuel a virtuous cycle,” said Weiser.

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.

Said Weiser, “I will say there is a something really something special about collaborating with one another to support the community. I think that is secret sauce to making this a success. I am inspired by the commitment of these community colleges and local government to reinvigorating their communities. 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.”

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