Fresno, California has an urgent issue many communities around the country are experiencing: a lack of affordable housing.
To help address the crisis, students attending Fresno City College’s construction training program are building 24 tiny houses for use by people who are homeless or low-income, all the while preparing local workers for in-demand careers.
Even before COVID, affordable housing was an issue in the Central California town with a population of a little over one million. The pandemic made the situation worse.
One-forth of all Fresno County households and more than 50% of renter households spend over 30% of their income on rent or mortgages, according to a recent report from the University of California Merced.
“I think it is a trend that we are starting to see with housing and rent being so high in our local area. A lot of folks are turning toward tiny homes in order to start their journey towards home ownership,” Becky Barabé, dean of instruction, applied technology, Fresno City College.
Learning the A to Zs of Residential Construction
Fresno City College has partnered in the past with cities, municipalities, and organizations like Habitat for Humanity to build tiny homes as a way of giving students hands-on training and real-world experience. This is the first partnership with the City of Fresno.
The units measure 8 x 20 feet with a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and living space designed for one or two people.
While the finished structures hold the promise of changing lives for people in search of affordable housing, so does the coursework for students preparing to launch skilled trades careers.
Students range in age from 18- to 70-years-old, according to Barabé, and they have the option of earning a certificate or an associate degree.
The first year of the program is described as the ‘A to Z of residential construction’ with some commercial construction applications. Students learn everything from reading blueprints, to laying a foundation and framing, to plumbing, electrical work, and carpentry.
The second year is optional where students can earn a degree and learn more about management skills. “They are qualified to go out into the workforce after the first-year experience. If they choose to continue on, their potential for entering into a supervisory level becomes higher,” explains Barabé.
Entry-level jobs such as construction laborers earn an average of $44,290 in Fresno. For construction supervisory roles, the average salary in Fresno is $76,890 with an associate degree, vocational school training, or on-the-job experience is usually required. Jobs for both roles are expected to grow between 4.7% by 2031.
This year, the college counts roughly 60 students in the construction program, about double past enrollments. “Because it was a high-demand occupation when so many of our occupations were going soft during COVID, the college decided it was an appropriate time to invest in more instructors at that point,” notes Barabé.
Skills Acquired Through a Real-Life Project
One new program instructor is Rodney Attkisson, a carpenter by trade, who describes the program as intense with a mixture of lectures and hands-on training. He says most of his students have no prior construction experience but are doing well.
Attkisson – a building trades instructor with the program – sees the tiny house project as an opportunity that can help students on many levels. “Not only do they get some building skills and some academic skills with it but there is a lot of collaboration with outside vendors.”
He continues, “They have to learn to collaborate and work together, learn project management skills, scheduling skills, things like that so I think it’s a great opportunity for them because it’s a real-life project.”
“We can teach them academically how to do things but the challenging part of it all, and what I think a lot of folks don’t really realize, is that they have to have a certain skill set and ability with their hands since it’s hands-on. That comes with time and experience,” explains Attkisson.
A Chance for a New Career
Carlos Ochoa Barragan, a program student, is embracing the challenge. “I always loved construction and building things, but I never had the opportunity to come to the school,” he says. The father of five worked in a slaughterhouse for 21 years until he suffered an injury that interfered with his work.
He is taking a chance on a new career path and wants to set an example for his 18-year-old. “I’m doing this to show my son, the oldest one, to motivate him to go to college and get a better job,” explains Ochoa Barragan.
He says his instructors are talking to him about aiming for a supervisory role in construction, something he is hoping to accomplish. In the meantime, he is looking forward to finishing a tiny house.
“I love it. I’m really excited,” says Ochoa Barragan. He adds, “It’s for a good reason. It’s to help the community, to help the people. I’m really happy because I’m part of this with all my coworkers, all the students. Everybody is excited and working hard.”
Changing Lives in Many Ways
The tiny house construction program is part of a five-year agreement with the City of Fresno and the college hopes the project with the city becomes a long-term partnership.
An organization partnering with the city will decide who will live in the homes.
Says Barabé, “That’s changing lives. It’s changing families. It’s changing individuals’ trajectory for their futures, so we are extremely thrilled to be a part of any kind of project along those lines.”