Millions to build homes, some constructed by students

The following column originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during October, 2023


Millions to build homes, some constructed by students


On Oct. 23, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency is giving educators, students and members of the public valuable information on what will ultimately lead to millions of dollars for Minnesota communities. Via a free Zoom meeting, MHFA and Center for School Change (where I work) will explain how Minnesota public school districts, charter public schools, intermediate districts and other groups can apply for funds to help Minnesota students learn construction skills as they build homes for low-income families. More than $45 million is available, with details released early in 2024.


Minnesota state legislators heard testimony earlier this year about the value of these programs from young people such as Aung Myo Way and Hser Pwe, who came to Minnesota from Myanmar (formerly called Burma). They lived for a time in a Thailand refugee camp because, as Way explained, “When I was 5 years old, I have to flee my village because the Burmese army came and burned it down.” They came to America, learned English and attended GAP (an alternative public school in St. Paul ), where they learned construction skills as they built a home for a low-income family. They also learned English because, as Way explained, “America was very difficult to survive without good English skills and having no job experience.”

GAP’s construction program led to good jobs:

— Pwe explained: “I found a career I love, and I make over $44/hr., and I have worked my way up to being a foreman. Because of this program I can speak English, support my wife and children and I have even become a U.S. citizen.”

— Way told legislators: “My life has changed so much. … Today I make more than $40/hr. as a Journeyman in the union, and I own my own home.”  (Their one-page testimony is here: )


One of the homes that GAP students have constructed, photo by Joe Nathan

Not every construction skills program participant has such dramatic stories. But in December 2022, Center for School Change and other groups convened students and educators from around the state, including people from the Anoka-Hennepin and Hutchinson school districts. Several students explained that they “strongly prefer” hands-on learning to traditional classrooms. One educator described some of these students as “superstars when it comes to carpentry.”

Legislators — including Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine; Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield; Rep. Samakab Hussein, DFL-St. Paul; Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis; and Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville — helped guide the bill through the Legislature. It had strong bipartisan support. Khalique Rogers, co-director of the Center for School Change, who himself experienced homelessness and graduated from St. Paul College, joined with the students to explain the bill’s value.

Here’s a link to the relevant law, Minnesota’s Economic Development and Housing Challenge Program.   Revisions to the law added school districts, charter public schools and intermediate districts to the list of organizations that can apply. This happened in 2023 with the support of more than a dozen education and community groups, as well as students, including students quoted above.

The Economic Development and Housing Challenge Program provides “grants or loans for the purpose of construction, acquisition, rehabilitation … of housing to support economic development and redevelopment activities or job creation or job preservation within a community or region by meeting locally identified housing needs.”

On Oct. 23, from 3-4 p.m. Tal Anderson, manager of community initiatives at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, will share information, along with some educators and students from construction programs. More than a dozen education and community groups are collaborating on the Zoom meeting. The Morning and Sundance Family foundations and Youthprise are supporting the Oct. 23 meeting and case studies about these programs. If you’d like to participate, please send an email to me by Oct. 16.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., has been a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president. He co-directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,