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April 2007
Volume 2, Number 4

Life Elevation Skills:
A Community Partnership to Reduce Barriers to Housing

David Throgmorton and Kathryn Murray

The Problem

Substandard housing in del norte county, california.Our rural county is defined by poverty. Fifty years ago Del Norte County, California, was awash in timber money and fishing money, but the big timber is gone and the coastal waters are fished out. One sad consequence of jobs that require little education is that machines can replace the people who used to do the hard work, and that has happened here. We have found ourselves with an unfortunate confluence involving a community that has traditionally put a low premium on education, industries that have outgrown their labor force, and a region that is so stunningly beautiful that people would rather live here in poverty than move to urban areas where there are more jobs. For many, this place has been their home for generations, and they intend to stay.

Our poverty carries the same consequences that exist wherever there is poverty: substance abuse, domestic violence, health problems, substandard housing, child neglect, and a loss of hope. No community college can cure these problems, but every community college serving an impoverished community has the obligation to boldly address them. We took a run at the housing issues that were preventing students and potential students, most of them single mothers, from focusing on their studies.

Substandard Housing in Our Community. Numerous families were living in local hotels that would have to be improved considerably to earn a rating of “sleazy.” Families of five lived in a single room with nothing but a hot-plate to cook meals. Drug deals were negotiated openly in the parking lot and fights were common. Clearly this was no environment for children, and mothers had ample reason to neglect their own education. Most of the families could string together enough income to live month to month, but none could cobble together two months’ rent to pay the damage deposit required for better housing. For some women, the one-month’s-rent damage deposit was all that stood between them and a better situation for their families.

The Plan: Life Elevation Skills

College of the redwoods, del norte.This was the landscape for conversations between the Life Elevation Action Program (LEAP), a project of the Community Assistance Network (CAN), and College of the Redwoods, Del Norte (CRDN). Since neither CAN nor CRDN had the ability to subsidize damage deposits, we concerned ourselves with what we do best: educate. We developed “Life Elevation Skills,” a five-week, twenty-hour course on how to be a good tenant. The plan was to help families learn how to be better tenants and then convince property managers to accept a certificate of completion from the course in lieu of a damage deposit.

The Process

Curriculum Development. We developed a curriculum that seemed both comprehensive and reasonable, but we had never been property managers so we suspected that some elements were missing. We arranged a meeting with the Crescent City Board of Realtors to discuss the idea and to present the draft of our curriculum. Though initially skeptical, the members of the Board warmed to the idea and offered outstanding suggestions for the development of the curriculum. In fact, the revised curriculum had little resemblance to the original draft, but it did directly address the issues and behaviors important to property managers. It is not an overstatement to say that the curriculum was developed by the members of the Board of Realtors.

Recruiting Faculty. Our next step was to recruit faculty members to teach the course modules, which proved to be the easiest aspect of the program. Once we explained the concept, people lined up to teach. The president of the Board of Realtors taught the classes on understanding a lease and communicating with property managers; a member of the Del Norte County Planning Commission taught the course on interior decorating; a retired naval officer taught the course on home repairs; local bankers taught the course on personal budgeting; the county housing inspector taught the course on housekeeping; the regional expert on substance abuse issues taught the course on clean and sober living. Busy professionals, introduced to the concept, immediately stepped in to help the program succeed, and most waived the $25-per-hour stipend we offered.

We outlined what each class had to cover according to the curriculum we had developed with the real estate board, but allowed instructors to be as creative as they wished. We had only one request: that they provide us with an outline of what they intended to cover prior to the class and, 24 hours after the class, an outline of what they actually covered. As we anticipated, questions from students led each instructor to follow a path they had not originally intended to follow, and we wanted to capture that spontaneity for future classes.

The Product

Our first class filled to capacity: 30 students, 27 of whom attended every session. Those who missed more than one module did not receive a certificate. We charged a $10 fee which, for most participants, was paid by an outside agency. We offered scholarships to a few students who had neither the fee nor access to an outside agency to pay it. The classes were all held on the Del Norte Campus of College of the Redwoods, in part to lend a serious, collegiate feel to the program.

Meeting Student Needs. We arranged transportation for students who had none and allowed those with small children to bring them to the class. In retrospect, we were fortunate that the only children who came were infants in carriers. We were not prepared to care for toddlers or preschool-aged children, and in future iterations of the program we will ensure that some child care arrangements are in place.

The classes were presented two days a week for two hours. We selected late morning, 10:00 a.m. to noon, as the optimum class time since many of the students had children in school. That proved to be a wise choice and probably contributed to the almost perfect attendance rate.

Life Elevation Skills Curriculum. The curriculum covered the following subjects:

  1. Personal Financial and Legal Issues
    • Constructing your personal budget
    • Setting up utilities
    • Understanding a lease or rental agreement
      • Deadlines
      • Drug clause
      • Renter responsibilities
      • Property manager responsibilities
      • Special considerations
    • Application processes
    • Renter’s insurance
    • Eviction
    • Other legal issues
  1. Living Skills
    • Selecting a location
    • Moving in/moving out
    • Housekeeping
      • Chemical-free cleaning
      • Household chemicals as cleaning agents
      • Tackling household cleaning in the rain forest
    • Interior design
    • Yard care
    • Painting and structural changes
    • Routine home maintenance
      • Normal wear and tear
      • Repairs you can do yourself
      • When to call the property manager
    • Pets
    • Being a good neighbor
    • Clean and sober living
    • Additional occupants
  1. Property Manager/Renter Relationships
    • Communication skills workshop
    • Communicating with the property manager
    • Problem solving and conflict resolution
    • Negotiations: creditors, utilities, others
    • Establishing and maintaining references
    • Repairing or establishing your credit rating

Each instructor brought handouts or visual aids, and every class was successful to some degree. The most popular was the interior design class. The instructors spent $25 in local thrift shops, using their purchases to demonstrate how to decorate, create more storage space, or provide a more comfortable home.

The Personal Budgeting Component. One of the most important components of the program was the section on personal budgeting. The first class covered budgets in general, but for the final class we enlisted professionals from local banks and credit unions and from CRDN to sit with each student for personalized financial counseling. The students were asked to bring a draft of their monthly budget and each was provided with an inexpensive household budget ledger. The financial professionals showed students how to use the ledgers to better understand and manage their money. Students responded very well to this particular class and all of them came prepared to talk about their finances. For many, this was the first time they had been taught how to budget or stretch their money to the end of the month.

Program Assessment. Halfway through the course, we assessed the program with an exam to see if the students were actually learning what we were trying to teach. We were gratified to find that they were, and we administered a second similar exam at the end of the course. The exams allowed us to assess our performance, but also helped create a more academic atmosphere which, in an unexpected way, gave the program credibility.

Celebrating Achievement. We held a commencement, complete with cake, to officially hand out the certificates of completion and to acknowledge the hard work students and instructors put into the course.

Following Up With Students and Instructors. At the end of the course we compiled all instructors' outlines and notes into an 18-page booklet. The original intention was to distribute this course-information booklet as reference material to each student, but we found the booklet was also useful to entice new property managers into the program. We were initially fortunate to find some property managers who were willing to take a risk on an untested program, but the late adopters needed the additional evidence of a tested and well-documented curriculum.

As a follow-up to the course, we offered several continuing education courses that covered topics not included in the original program, such as gardening, and to reinforce topics that were, such as budgeting. No fees were charged for the continuing education courses, and they were well attended. In fact, there was a sense of camaraderie among the students who returned for additional coursework.

The Prognosis

Expanding Content. In the second iteration of the class we have determined to add a continuing education module titled, “Nutrition on a Wafer Thin Budget.” Clearly, poverty comes as a package. Poor housing is related to poor nutrition, which is related to poor health. In future iterations we will extend the program beyond how to be a responsible renter by addressing related issues that prevent students from being able to focus on education.

Expanding Support. We have approached our county’s two regional economic and cultural development foundations about setting up an escrow account with sufficient funds to reimburse property managers who admit students from the program but who sustain damage to their property nonetheless. The reimbursement would be only for the amount of the damage deposit, which the property manager waived for the certificate of completion. In an ideal world, the fund will never be needed, but we recognize that completing the course does not necessarily guarantee that all graduates will be ideal tenants.

Minimal Costs, Life-Changing Benefits. We started with a budget of $600 for this program, anticipating that we would receive $300 in fees from students and spend perhaps twice that amount on instructor stipends and so forth. Thanks to the generosity of instructors who refused the stipend and to CRDN for not charging a facility rental fee, the entire first class cost $365, $210 of which was offset by registration fees. This is a program that can be easily replicated anywhere, including in communities without a community college partner.

For us, Life Elevation Skills represents an inexpensive collaboration of college and community organizations that actually works. Property managers benefit from having reliable, knowledgeable tenants. LEAP has a new program to serve the needs of its clients. The Del Norte Campus of College of the Redwoods has helped remove one more barrier to student success. And most importantly, a few more families in our county are in safer, more suitable housing.

David Throgmorton is the former Del Norte Campus Vice President at College of the Redwoods. Kathryn Murray is Program Manager for the Life Elevation Action Program and Director of Family Services at the Community Assistance Network. The authors have offered to share their curriculum at no cost. Contact Kathryn Murray at kmurray@canbless.org or Dave Throgmorton at dthrogmorton@cchec.org.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor