Skill Builders

By Jeff Harder

For almost 40 years, YouthBuild has guided underprivileged young adults into constructive careers and lives.

Amir Mans found a new career weatherizing houses through YouthBuild.

Four years ago, Amir Mans was a son without a future. The father with whom he shared a Section 8 apartment in upstate New York had passed away. Mans was 20 years old, he had dropped out of high school years before, and he had no job, no money, and no direction. “At that point in time, my back was against the wall, and I had nothing else to lose,” he says.

Then his girlfriend told him about YouthBuild Schenectady. For the next nine months, Mans woke up early each day to study all the subjects he had sidestepped and learn the intricacies of weatherizing homes. He found counselors who helped him get his GED—and helped him get through the weeks when there was no food in his cupboards. He earned an alphabet’s worth of certifications (BPI, Lead Safe Worker Practices Certification, and OSHA to name a few) and found a new career. In time, he found that he had a future after all.

The overarching mission of YouthBuild USA is to unleash the intelligence and positive energy of low-income youth to rebuild their communities and their own lives at the same time.

Stories like these aren’t the exception for graduates of YouthBuild—they’re the rule. For 37 years, the organization has provided education, job skills, and real-world work experience to underprivileged teens and young adults by mobilizing them to build and rehabilitate affordable housing in communities around the country. Since 1994, more than 130,000 YouthBuild students have built more than 28,000 units of affordable housing. And for the last decade, YouthBuild USA’s Green Initiative has been harnessing sustainable building principles, bringing healthy housing to the people who need them most. “The outcomes are quality green homes, but along the way, we’re building character, a sense of service, and providing skills that help people move on to decent careers and higher education,” says Chris Cato, the Green Initiative’s project manager. “What we’re doing goes beyond building homes.”

YouthBuild began in 1978, when founder and CEO Dorothy Stoneman organized young people in East Harlem, New York, to renovate a dilapidated tenement building. Today, YouthBuild USA, a national nonprofit headquartered in Somerville, Massachusetts, supports 260 local programs in the U.S., fueled with funds from government agencies and private supporters. The specifics of each independently operating program vary by location, but their audience is the same: 16- to 24-year-olds who are escaping hardship, whether it’s an abusive home, substance abuse, a criminal past, or unemployment, 93 percent of whom lack a high school diploma. “The overarching mission of YouthBuild USA is to unleash the intelligence and positive energy of low-income youth to rebuild their communities and their own lives at the same time,” says Eva Blake, senior director of green initiatives at YouthBuild USA.

And while some YouthBuild programs offer studies in health care and technology, construction is a particularly viable field for hands-on learners, whether the goal is a good job or a degree in building science or a related field. To get there, each YouthBuild student spends roughly nine months navigating a curriculum evenly divided between time spent in the classroom and the job site. In the classroom, they study for their high school diploma or its equivalent, and complete requirements for certifications from OSHA, the National Center for Construction Education and Research, the Building Performance Institute, the Home Builders Institute, and other organizations. On the job site, they build and renovate affordable housing, from single-family homes to gut rehabs of existing properties, often in conjunction with local housing authorities. Throughout the program, students receive counseling and case management for debt, childcare, legal issues, and other obstacles. “When a young person gets a chance to work on a property that’s been run down, beat down, and abused, through the process of repairing and rebuilding it and making it a high-quality environment for a low-income family, that mirrors the work they’re doing in their personal life,” Cato says.

In 2005, Blake and Cato launched the Green Initiative to equip YouthBuild programs with the training and support to build green homes. Traditionally, affordable housing units reflect flaws like toxic building materials, shoddy construction, and poor insulation—unhealthy environments can exacerbate their residents’ troubles by keeping them home sick instead at school or work, Cato says. And very often, these homes’ wasteful energy consumption can lead low-income families to homelessness because they can’t pay their utility bills. “If you go into a property, retrofit it or rehab it, make it energy efficient, and reduce costs by 30 percent, you may be saving a family from becoming homeless.” Additionally, Blake says, green building practices help YouthBuild students stay marketable. “To be competitive in today’s construction industry, you need to know something about green building.”

Within the last year, 44 percent of the units built or rehabbed by YouthBuild students were reported to be green, 300 were ENERGY STAR Homes, almost 300 were Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, and over 650 have been weatherized. Blake says that so far, 9 percent of all job placements for YouthBuild graduates have been in green jobs.


Eva Blake of YouthBuild USA.

Casa Verde Builders, a YouthBuild program in Austin, Texas, spearheaded many of the green building best practices now in use at YouthBuild programs throughout the country. In recent years, Ted Roan, YouthBuild’s director of green construction and a 16-year veteran of Casa Verde, began traveling the country to teach the YouthBuild construction trainers who instruct students how to weave green building strategies into their projects, like alternative framing ideas to conserve materials, design tweaks to maximize energy efficiency, and the basics of air sealing. “We have 260 programs nationwide, and I’m doing my best to make all of them as green as Casa Verde,” he says.

During his travels, Roan has watched the positive impacts of green affordable housing ripple beyond the building’s footprint. “I’ve seen it firsthand in Austin and in other places: The more homes that are built by YouthBuild, the more the community becomes involved, and some of the local municipalities say, ‘If we had more homes that were saving 30 percent on their energy bill, we won’t have to build a new power plant,’” Roan says. “They’re thinking about what it means to the municipality, but they’re taking their lead from these projects.”
In particular, YouthBuild’s LEED-certified affordable homes have become buzz-generating icons—living proof that green building works for low-income housing as much as million-dollar office buildings. In March 2009, to demonstrate the organization’s embrace of sustainable building practices, YouthBuild members from around the country convened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to build a green, affordable, single-family home. The home was later shipped to Brownsville, Texas, and completed by YouthBuild Brownsville before receiving LEED Silver certification—the first LEED for Homes house built in the Rio Grande Valley, Blake says. YouthBuild programs were among the first to bring LEED-certified affordable homes to Fall River, Massachusetts; Rockford and Waukegan, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Akron, Ohio. Through a partnership with a global building materials company, Saint-Gobain and subsidiary CertainTeed, Akron Summit YouthBuild gut-rehabbed a duplex in Akron. The dwelling earned a LEED Platinum rating, making it the first home in the city to receive that designation—and just the seventh in the Buckeye State.

Since becoming members of the U.S. Green Building Council in 2009, the relationship between YouthBuild and the USGBC has grown stronger. Along with providing increased training and encouraging projects to seek formal LEED certification, USGBC scholarships enabled selected YouthBuild staff and graduates from around the country to attend Greenbuild International Conference and Expo and learn about the wider sustainability movement. During the last five conferences in Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans, local YouthBuild affiliates have staffed booths and shared their experiences with fellow attendees. “Those scholarships have been invaluable in transforming the mindsets of the scholars who attended, and in general, this partnership has been great in exposing more young people to the ideas of green building and green strategy,” Roan says. As a result, many YouthBuild graduates have entered the workforce as green construction workers and weatherization installers.

Left to right: Chris Cato of YouthBuild USA; more than 130,000 students have graduated from the YouthBuild program

Beyond the paychecks YouthBuild graduates earn and the homes they build, there are even greater transformations in the lives of YouthBuild’s students. One young man showed up to his YouthBuild program in Idaho wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, only to have it removed four months later when a judge saw all the progress he’d made. Another in Texas went from criminal to master electrician thanks to YouthBuild, then returned to the program year after year to speak with new students and encourage them to stick around at all costs.

Then there’s Amir Mans. Upon graduation YouthBuild Schenectady helped him find a local job in weatherization. For the last three years, he’s been working as a contractor, insulating houses and advancing within his company. Instead of faltering at a critical time in his life and becoming a cautionary tale, Mans became something of a role model: One of his friends enrolled in the Schenectady program is now making a similar life-changing journey. “For lack of a better term, I feel like I’m not a statistic any more,” he says. “Ever since YouthBuild came into my life, it’s been nothing but positive.” So far, that positivity has been contagious.