In 2017, the Athens Land Trust surveyed students at Clarke Central High School to rank their top concerns and problems. It found the highest-ranking issue was employment-related, ALT executive director Heather Benham said in an email.
After conducting community input meetings and surveys to determine what areas in Athens were in need of renovation and repair, ALT began to focus on the West Broad neighborhood. In an attempt to solve both young adult employment concerns and revitalization efforts in the neighborhood, ALT created the Young Urban Builders program last year.
“There are other land trusts in Georgia,” said Ashley Thompson, ALT’s AmeriCorps VISTA public relations coordinator. “But I don’t think that they have programs like this.”
According to the land trust, this program gives young adults 18 to 21 years old the ability to gain “job training and experience while working on community projects and aiding in neighborhood revitalization.” There are currently five youth YUB members who actively participate at construction sites under the direction of the program’s coordinator, Fernakey Brown.
To understand how best to serve West Broad, members of the Athens community and ALT visited other cities to see what efforts worked best there. During a trip to Birmingham, they saw a great deal of work being done to revitalize certain neighborhoods, sparking the idea for the YUB program.
The program is made up of a diverse group of members, including “non-traditional students” pursuing a college degree or a GED diploma, Benham said.
“It’s not limited to recent high school grads,” Benham said. “It’s very flexible because it is meant to meet community needs.”
The types of construction work YUB participants take on differs from home to home.
While YUB members do not gain any official certifications from the program, they are compensated $10 per hour for their time on the job. The program meets for about 28 hours each week.
“It’s a good learning experience, learning how to build people’s houses and fix them,” said Channing Westbrook, a graduate of Foothills Education Charter High School who has been a part of YUB for a year. “We do roofing, solid foundation … inside and outside work.”
Homeowners in West Broad interested in taking advantage of the program apply for consideration, and applicants are accepted based on factors such as income. Already, Brown said YUB has gained a lot of popularity in this neighborhood, despite being a relatively new program.
Brown said the group has about 120 homes they plan to work on.
ALT requires the applying homeowners to be below 80% of the area’s median income. After a home is accepted into the program, Brown said, it is assessed for needed repairs. Then, actual construction work can begin.
The program annually receives $100,000 in general funds from the Athens-Clarke County government, and is also supported by private donations, Benham said.
For the past month and a half, the YUB team has been working on completely remodeling a house in the Hancock Corridor, which, is the program’s 17th project. Brown said the work on this particular home could be completed within the next three weeks.
While there is currently only one YUB team that works on one project at a time, Benham wants to expand to two teams to speed up the process. However, Benham is also looking into potentially evolving the program in a different way to better serve the community.
“We can keep knocking houses off the list,” she said. “But at some point, I would be interested in partnering with the high schools to see if they are interested in adding trade programs to their schools, and we could expand from there.”
With such a positive community response to YUB, Benham is hopeful of its future as a program at ALT.
“There is a lot of need for the housing stock to be renovated,” Benham said. “And I think that there are plenty of young people who are interested in working.”