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Our house, in the middle of our street

By Staff | Dec 13, 2018

There’s a housing shortage in Estherville. To that end, the city in cooperation with the Estherville Area Growth Partnership has created a spec house to spur a new housing initiative. I think it’s great.

Before today, I was not familiar with a statewide organization called ICOG, though I probably should have been, The Iowa Association of Councils of Governments is offering to create a nonprofit called Homes for Iowa to operate the Rural Homes Initiatives.

ICOG is a statewide association that provides technical assistance to Iowa cities, counties and businesses. They seek to address the housing shortage and provide job skills to prisoners who will be paroled.

The plan is modeled after one that’s run for 20 years in South Dakota. Inmates build stick-built houses that can then be transported anywhere in the state to build up quick housing supply for new workforces or just new middle class development.

The vision is to have inmates in the medium security Newton Correctional Facility build homes that could be shipped to areas in need of affordable housing. Advocates are asking the legislature for $4 million in state tax dollars to start it up. Newton is known across the state for having a master gardener program as well. Inmates run a garden that not only provides produce to the prison kitchen but also to recipients of fresh food through the local food bank.

Inmates would be paid for the work, and a lot of it would go to restitution to the inmate’s victims, court fines and costs, and for short-term inmates the costs of their room and board.

South Dakota has seen a 35 percent reduction in committing a crime compared to the general prison population. I think it would be great to see numbers like that here.

I have a friend from back in high school and correspondent (how do you think I got so good at summarizing a life nugget in a column?) who’s been in Iowa prison for a while. It’s no one from this area. He’s spent his prime adult years in the system and watched others who have committed far worse crimes get out far sooner than he will be. He’s reached a level in which he has a fair amount of freedom and has amassed a fair amount of trust. He was transferred to Iowa from the state he was arrested to be closer to his family years ago, and it’s difficult to understand why the original state hasn’t paroled him. He says something must be done about the current state of the prison experience. He says there are many inside who shouldn’t be there and others who use the prison gates as a revolving door because it’s unlikely they will ever be rehabilitated. The prison at Clarinda is called the daycare because it’s filled with young men 18, 19, 20 years old who mostly are addicted to substances and/or have mental illnesses, who wouldn’t be in prison now if anyone had helped them earlier in their lives. The inmates have other names for other Iowa prisons which may or may not be reflective of the reality.

Enlisting inmates, and 90 percent of all inmates will one day leave prison, in solving Iowa’s affordable housing problem could help us all. Would you rather have the ex-convict who has had rehabilitation, built job skills and has a purpose in life as your future neighbor, or the one who was the face of lockup, who’s unskilled and angry and knows no other thing than crime?

With the hope on the horizon of new employers and new housing in Estherville, it seems to me we should keep moving forward.