D.C.’s Sweat Equity program provides some participants immeasurable rewards

February 12, 2013

Michael Jackson sweeps a callused palm along the underside of his kitchen counter to feel the bumpy grain, proof that it’s granite and “not that put-together cardboard topped with laminate.”

“You don’t normally find this,” he says, caressing the gray-veined stone. “This is our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

When Jackson and other homeless welfare recipients first stepped into the red-brick building in Southeast Washington a year and a half ago, they found gutted apartments with cobwebs and broken appliances. Their job: Make it a place they would be proud to call home.

District officials launched Sweat Equity, an ambitious experiment aimed at helping the chronically poor, with the idea that participants would not only gain the skills needed to lessen their dependency on the city’s tightening welfare program but also be able to move into the renovated buildings.

At the time, officials called it an unprecedented local effort, a program that could provide a model for reducing homelessness, public assistance rolls and the number of abandoned buildings across Washington. A program that could answer both a philosophical and practical question: Can handing a person a hammer instead of a handout help them tear down more than just physical walls?

Now the construction is complete, and where two eyesores once stood on Wayne Place, there are two energy-efficient buildings. District officials will soon gather on a sidewalk there and cut a ribbon in celebration. But even as participants enjoy apartments with matching leather-trimmed sofas, the city has no plans to continue the costly and complicated program that, in the end, showed that some successes can’t be measured.

It was his first day of work, and Jackson was late. District officials had given him and another man, Omar Martin, the wrong time to arrive at one of the Wayne Place buildings. Jackson hadn’t even made it to the front door when a sweat-drenched man in a once-white T-shirt leaned out a third-floor window and taunted him for his tardiness.

“What, ya scared to get dirty?” the man yelled.

As Jackson tells it, he was more scared of the alternative — not working and continuing to live with his 7- and 8-year-old in a D.C. homeless shelter.

“I just want a refrigerator and a stove,” the single father said at the time. “My kids want me to cook. They want to be able to go to the refrigerator and get their own drink.”

Before city officials chose the people who would participate in the Sweat Equity program, they required applicants to write an essay. Jackson says he wrote three.

“Not only did I have an opportunity to go back to work,” says Jackson, 44, who at one point delivered groceries for Whole Foods. “I had an opportunity to show my kids what it takes to be successful. You have to have drive.”

He was among the first to move into a three-bedroom apartment in the building in November. On a recent weekday, he shows off his favorite aspects: lights that dim with a touch of a controller on the wall, a spacious bathroom with water-efficient appliances, and a washer and dryer that spare him a walk to the laundromat.

“My kids love it,” he says. “They ask me all the time, ‘Dad, you really built this?’ Yes, we really built this.”

He’s disappointed to hear that others will not have the opportunity he had. He now works for a construction company, earning $14.50 an hour and has big business plans with his downstairs neighbor, Martin.

But Jackson says he didn’t get to this point without some frustration, including months of unemployment. And not everyone who started the program ended up with a job or an apartment in the building.

Eleven men and women worked on the Wayne Place buildings. Sixof them have found jobs, officials said; one is in the final stages of pre-employment testing with the Department of Transportation; one had a stroke and has been unable to work; three continue to look for jobs.

Seven now live with their families in the buildings; one lives in public housing; one is receiving a housing subsidy; one earns enough to pay market rent for an apartment; one remains in a community-based shelter and still receives benefits from the city through a federally funded welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Beverly Barbour knew she probably wouldn’t end up moving into one of the Wayne Place buildings because she has five children, too many to squeeze into a three-bedroom place. But she signed up for the program anyway — just shy of her 50th birthday and with no construction experience — for the job training.

Barbour is now in an apprenticeship program for carpentry and works as a project manager assistant for a construction company, earning $15.84 an hour. She no longer receives welfare benefits. A particular point of pride for her — and one she partly credits Sweat Equity for — is that her two oldest sons are in college. “It showed them that if Mommy can do it, you can, too,” she says. “They see we were down for a minute, but we pulled ourselves back up.”

District officials praise the program for confirming that many welfare recipients want to work, even if some have lost hope, and for bringing different city agencies and nonprofit groups together.

The program was born through a rare collaboration of the city’s departments of Human Services, Employment Services and General Services with the United Planning Organization, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness and Capital Area Asset Builders.

“I think we approached this thinking this was a great way to engage and change clients,” says David Berns, director of Department of Human Services. “As it turned out, it changed us.”

Officials from the city agencies and the nonprofit groups regularly gathered around tables and spoke bluntly about what was at stake. Their discussions acknowledged that not all the participants — many of whom had not graduated from high school and a few of whom required drug and alcohol treatment — would succeed.

They also talked about how the city had played a role in creating a community dependent on handouts and now had a responsibility to help individuals become self-sufficient. In 1996, the federal government placed a five-year lifetime limit on participation in TANF but allowed states and the District to keep recipients on the rolls longer if they used their own funds. The city decided to operate without time limits, a choice that cost D.C. taxpayers an estimated $35 million a year. That changed two years ago when the city began cutting back the welfare benefits of about 6,500 families that had been on assistance for more than five years. By 2015, those families and others that hit the five-year mark will see their benefits terminated.

City officials say there are no plans to continue the Sweat Equity program because it is more cost-effective to apply lessons learned from it to other job-training and capital-improvement efforts.

No official price tag has been placed on the program, but training alone cost $65,000 and equipment was $500 per person. The construction effort — which officials say the city would have needed to do anyway — cost $2.6 million.

In contrast, the District pays $50,000 a year to keep a family in a homeless shelter and doles out, on average, $370 a month in welfare benefits to families.

And then there are the savings that can’t be calculated, officials say — such as the money that won’t be spent on the children of participants who stay in school and don’t rely on welfare at all.

On a recent afternoon, Martin’s two youngest sons run across the apartment’s shiny wood floors, all giggles and footed pajamas.

Before starting the program, Martin lived in a homeless shelter with his wife and four children, all younger than 4. They landed there, he says, after he lost his job as a security officer for the National Archives and went from earning $60,000 a year to receiving $600 a month in government assistance.

“When I was making $60,000 a year, I was a fool,” says Martin, 36. “I never thought about 401(k)s or profit sharing or IDAs [individual development accounts]. I wasn’t thinking this job can be gone in a day and a month. So I learned a valuable lesson in this ordeal.”

He and Jackson, who have grown so close that they describe themselves as “peanut butter and jelly,” spent months looking for work after their employment ended with Sweat Equity. They work for the same construction company, and they say they are on track to earn $32 an hour as lead carpenters in a few years.

They have plans, the men say, to go from tenants of the Wayne Place buildings to owners. As part of the program, participants don’t pay rent for the three years they are allowed to live in the buildings. Instead they contribute a portion of their income to a special savings account created through Capital Area Asset Builders that is matched on a 3-to-1 basis. Jackson and Martin figure they could save about $40,000 each — a number city officials confirm.

It should be enough, the men say­­, to put in a bid for the buildings if they go up for auction.

“This is gold,” Jackson says three times as he pats the living room floors. “This is what we worked so hard for. This is what we sweated for. We see a big picture now. Instead of employees, we’re going to be employers.”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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