Minnesota Legislature doubles funding for student homebuilding program

The following story originally appeared in the St Paul Pioneer Press.  Copyright St Paul Pioneer Press


MN Legislature doubles funding for student homebuilding program

A two-story West Side home that students built will soon hit the market.

by Frederick Melo

May 29, 2023

A student wearing a "YouthBuild" navy blue t-shirt, along with khaki pants and work boots, carries several pieces of lumber on a construction site for a nearly completed house.

Eh Ta Lee Htoo, a student at GAP School, an alternative school on St Paul’s West Side, is seen on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, helping fellow students clean up around a house they built as a part of a construction-skills program. The environmentally sustainable West Side residence will go on the market for qualified low-income buyers. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)


As a student at an alternative high school on St. Paul’s West Side, Ivan Sanchez hasn’t just hit the books. He’s also learned the ins and outs of mudding, painting, sanding, insulation and all the other particulars that went into building a four-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot, environmentally sustainable house that some have billed as the home of the future.

The two-story structure soon will hit the market in the same neighborhood where Sanchez goes to school, with an income eligibility ceiling geared to middle-class families.

“A lot of people liked the opportunity,” Sanchez, a 17-year-old student at Change Inc.’s GAP School, said while standing in front of the school project he’s spent the last year constructing from the ground up on Page Street. “I definitely did. It’s probably a career path I’ll take.”

During tours last week with a host of elected officials, arguably the only person prouder of his accomplishment — which required construction safety training and certification from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration — was his mother.

“He’s going to graduate on time, and at the same time have this experience,” said Elizabeth Sanchez. “It’s a good opportunity.”

The word “opportunity” came up more than once as a bevy of officials from St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, the city and the state celebrated the waning days of the legislative session and its sudden windfall for YouthBuild, an AmeriCorps homebuilding program. As a result of the state’s latest economic development legislation, the state portion of YouthBuild’s funding will double from $1 million to $2 million per year for the next two years.

In addition, school districts and charter schools can for the first time apply to the Minnesota Housing Agency for up to $100,000 to fund similar homebuilding construction projects for students. Authored by state Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, and state Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, the bills that created both opportunities drew strong bipartisan support.

Tyson Schultz, 17, wasn’t all about traditional public school, but he’s loving this one. “It opens a lot of doors for a lot of opportunities. I didn’t want to be in debt for 20 years after I go to school.”



The door’s been open all day. It’s blazing out. There’s no air conditioner. There is a split, which isn’t on. Just fan cooling — and it’s gloriously cool right now. An insulated foundation, no basement, and a solar chimney that collects hot air keeps it cool.



“There’s a number of school districts around the state that are doing this. This had complete agreement between Republicans and Democrats,” said Joe Nathan, co-director of the Center for School Change in St. Paul, who lobbied lawmakers to support the bills. “Literally not one objection raised in five hearings; I’ve never seen that in 30 years of working with the Legislature.”

Added Nathan, “this is a real, concrete example of how education can transform people’s lives. Many of these are young people who did not have a successful experience in traditional schools. They’re hands-on learners. They want to do things.”

Home of the future

Students at GAP School, an alternative school on St Paul's West Side, at the St. Paul house they built.
YouthBuild students at GAP School, an alternative school on St Paul’s West Side, at the St. Paul house they built as a part of the school’s construction skills program on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
The West Side St. Paul LEED Gold certified home will put on the market for qualified low-to-moderate income buyers. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)Partly thanks to the legislation, YouthBuild students — who are compensated for their work through AmeriCorps — will build three more homes directly next to the first, with the second likely breaking ground early this summer. The land is mostly clear and ready for construction, beyond a shed slated for removal.“Home ownership is the way of building generational wealth,” Rena Moran, a Ramsey County commissioner and former state lawmaker, said during a home tour on Tuesday. “We want high-growth jobs and the ability to add affordable housing. This is what we need for our families — a four-bedroom home.”

The Page Street house is Gold LEED-certified, close to the U.S. Green Building Council’s gold standard for environmental sustainability. Even without an air conditioner or basement, it kept cool Tuesday as the doors were open to visitors for hours. Foot-thick walls, ceiling fans, a tall solar chimney, a mini-split wall unit and heavy insulation are designed to trap cool air in the summer and warm air in the winter.

Tony Zahradka, a training manager with YouthBuild, said with supply chain issues, the Page Street home took two years and 120 students to build. About a third of the academic year is spent on construction.

Nathan said YouthBuild’s partnership with the GAP School realizes the dream of Sister Mary Giovanni, the nun who once was in charge of the Catholic school at Our Lady of Guadalupe church on St. Paul’s West Side, a beacon for generations of Latin immigrants. Founded in 1967, Guadalupe Alternative Programs evolved into an educational alternative for youth at risk of dropping out of high school. It enrolls up to 210 students ages 16-24 while offering school-based mental health services and career training.

Many of the 30 or so young people involved in YouthBuild through the GAP School are Karen, an ethnic group that fled government persecution in Burma, or Myanmar, and have settled in large numbers in Roseville, Maplewood and St. Paul’s North End.

Boe Boe, a Realtor with Partners Realty, was a student at the GAP School in 2010 when its first four Karen students enrolled. It’s his hope to sell at least one of the homes on Page Street to the family of a young person who helped build it. Under income eligibility criteria, the homes will be sold to households earning no more than 80 percent of area median income.

“I was older, so I couldn’t go to the regular high school anymore,” recalled Boe, who had just emigrated from a refugee camp in Thailand, where he lived for 12 years, before moving to Minnesota. “GAP School was the best school for me. I loved to come to the school everyday. On Sundays, I still wanted to come to school, because I was having so much fun.”