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Tiny house construction training has Fresno students dreaming big about their futures

Tiny house construction training has Fresno students dreaming big about their futures
Ashleigh Panoo / EdSource

Oscar Martinez, left, and Carlos Ochoa work on the frame of one of 24 tiny homes Fresno City College students will build with a grant from the city.

At Fresno City College’s Career and Technology Center, tucked away in an industrial neighborhood near the city’s southern border, a dozen students gathered around the wood framing of a small exterior wall.

The construction students were raising the structures onto a trailer, beginning what will be the first of 24 tiny homes that will go to people in need. And beyond the charitable goal, this important real-life construction project is teaching work skills and is aiming to help students enter the workforce with valuable experience.

When the pandemic began shuttering campuses in 2020, construction classes stayed outside in person. But Fresno City College lost its usual community project – building a home for a family with Habitat for Humanity.

Now thanks to a partnership with the city of Fresno, the community college is participating in a four-year-long project to build tiny homes for low-income or homeless people throughout the city. The homes will be constructed on campus by students in two construction courses, foundations and framing, and interiors and exteriors.

The first few houses will be finished in May 2023, according to Ricco Guajardo, the program lead and instructor. He hopes to get on track to finish about six a year by 2026 with the $850,000 grant from the city, approved in September.

Alexis Ayala, one of the students working on the framing, wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college straight after high school. The 2021 Fresno Unified graduate thought he’d take time off to make some money, “then go to school if I really felt like it.”

That was until a flyer arrived at his house promoting the construction program. His mother, he recalled, told him, ‘You know, they offer a lot of programs. Check what you’re interested in.’”

Now, four months into the program, Ayala plans on finishing his certificate next fall, then moving on to earn his architectural degree.

“I plan on starting a business, probably with some of my family members, and teach them the ropes,” he said.

Ashleigh Panoo / EdSource

Alexis Ayala, left, goes over plans for the construction of a tiny house with instructor Rodney Attkisson at Fresno City College’s Career and Technology Center.

Ayala feels pride in his work already, knowing that the tiny houses are for a good cause.

“It’s going to be one of the first projects I ever do,” he said. “I try my hardest and, for the most part, it’s fun thinking this is going to go to a person in need.”

During the pandemic, construction instructors had already been teaching how to build tiny homes, but selling the trendy houses to recoup the cost of materials is difficult, according to college President Robert Pimentel. Instead, each house was dismantled after being finished.

“We literally had to take them all apart and then hopefully recapture a lot of the materials and use them again,” he said.

So it’s exciting, instructors said, to be able to build homes that people will actually live in.

Tiny house construction includes everything students need to know to build larger structures, such as framing, blueprint reading, installing doors and windows, plumbing and more.

Pimentel said once students have passed the two classes, “they’re pretty good to go out and work in construction.” Home builders may hire a lot of them “because they will have the experience to do it,” he said.

Instructor Rodney Attkisson said students usually choose one major trade to get into, such as framing, cabinetry and trim or foundations.

“So not only do they get trained (here),” he said, “but they also get a good taste of what they may want to do.”

Student Oscar Martinez had no prior experience in construction, and like Ayala, came into the program right out of high school. Now he has found “tying walls together” the most interesting. The process of linking up the walls with each other just “makes it all come together,” he said. “Like a puzzle.”

When he heard he’d be helping to build a tiny house, “I thought that was a good gesture, something nice to give back to the community,” he said.

Guarjardo said a majority of his students arrive without any prior construction knowledge.

“There are some people that have never used a hammer before,” he said. “(They) don’t even know how to use power tools (and we) get them to the spot where they’re comfortable using all this stuff and knowing how to use it.”

Ashleigh Panoo / EdSource

Instructor and program lead Ricco Guajardo, wearing orange, works with students to check the framing of a tiny home.

The tiny home grant comes from the city of Fresno’s American Rescue Plan Act money, federal funding approved by Congress and President Joe Biden to aid economic recovery during the pandemic. Earlier this year, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer unveiled a housing strategy that included prioritizing tiny homes and accessory dwelling units to address a local and statewide housing shortage.

The college is using design plans supplied by California Tiny House, a Fresno-based tiny home builder, according to Becky Barabé, the dean of instruction in the applied technology division at Fresno City College. The one-bedroom, 8-by-20-foot homes will be built on wheels and include a bathroom and mini kitchen, including a refrigerator, she said.

The city is looking for community organizations that will place the tiny homes and decide who will get to live in them, according to Sontaya Rose, the director of communications for the city.

Despite the desperate need for student housing, the homes aren’t specifically designated for students, Barabé said, although she couldn’t rule out the possibility of a student applying to live in one.

Ashleigh Panoo / EdSource

The 8-by-20-foot frame of the first tiny house has been put up by students.

Many colleges, and even high schools, have turned to designing and building tiny homes. But only a few have the funds to turn those homes into actual housing for people who need it most.

The Oakland City Council gave Laney College $80,000 in 2016 to build two tiny home prototypes where students now live. The college won awards for its design at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s tiny house competition.

In 2021, University of San Francisco students and their professor finished a tiny home village in Oakland for foster kids aging out of the system.

At College of the Desert in the Coachella Valley, dual enrollment high school students helped build a tiny home this year, according to the college.

Other cities have turned to tiny home villages to house people experiencing homelessness, but not without criticism.

Los Angeles is the site of several of these parks, and mayoral candidates are proposing even more to help the more than 40,000 unhoused people in the city. Bay Area cities host several as well.

The villages have been criticized for overzealous rules and for not treating the underlying reasons many people experience homelessness: a shortage of permanent housing and untreated mental illness. Homeowners have fought to keep the villages out of their neighborhoods, citing worries about crime. This year, an Oakland Unified school sent a letter asking for more security at a village near its campus after leaders worried about student safety.

But access to case managers that the villages offer is crucial, advocates say, and having private bathrooms, like the Fresno homes will, may boost the chances people will stay longer and get on their feet.

Although it’s still uncertain how the homes could be used, and where, “We’re excited to be able to be a part of the solution,” Barabé said.

At the college’s Career and Technology Center campus, Carlos Ochoa hopped onto the trailer where his class’s tiny house was being built. The 42-year-old is hoping to earn a certificate and get into a job with a union.

Ochoa has held numerous jobs, his last one at a slaughterhouse. He hopes his future construction job will be “different. Easier than the previous one I had,” he said. “Less stress.”

The father of five may not have professional construction experience, but he’s taught himself to take care of things around the house over the years, he said.

“Now when I come into this class, all these kids, they come to me and ask me questions,” he said, “and I help them.”

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