At the end of the day when Kris Davis leaves his job at Work Pittsburgh on the South Side, he can look across the rivers at the Allegheny County Jail windows he would stare out of.
“I would look at the cars on Parkway East and wish I was stuck in rush hour traffic,” he said.
Now, when other drivers are fuming about traffic as he drives home to McKeesport, he smiles. And he gives a lot of credit for that smile to the people he is working with, who have honed his modest skills with shop tools into the rough and finished carpentry needed to build a house—which he is doing in a South 6th Street warehouse.
Along with 10 other ex-offenders and one U.S. Marine Corp veteran, Davis is one of Work Pittsburgh’s first employees; earning $15.50 an hour plus benefits building prefabricated Micro Homes.
“It’s a chance to learn a trade and excel in some aspect of it. This is a God-send to every one of us,” said Davis, taking a break from installing exterior cedar siding. “They gave us fertile soil to grow in. It does a lot for a man’s ego and confidence.”
Work Pittsburgh is a subsidiary of Nello Development and the brainchild of Business Development Director Lee Davis and Nello Vice President of Business Development Dan Bull, and is all about second chances.
“Its quite simple. We believe that ‘ex-offenders,’ or ‘felons’ have unlimited potential, skills and talents, and we stand by the motto ‘A Hand Up, Not A Handout,’” said Davis.
“This notion, we believe, will serve as the backdrop for our employees to become successful business men, and more importantly, successful contributors to society. We believe in second chances and this venture will serve as a model for other cities, states, and the country to help change and transform people’s lives concretely.”
It’s doing so for Irv Brentley. He is installing the electrical wiring, plugs and junction boxes in the 750 square-foot model Micro Home the crew has been building since Sept. 3. Though he is being supervised by a journeyman from the union he didn’t need much. He earned his part I and part II electrical certifications during a 17-year stint in the Pennsylvania State Correctional Facility at Frackville.
“This is different from the large industrial systems I worked on in the penitentiary, but it will have some neat efficiency features—occupancy sensors, large windows, to appeal to environmentally conscious millennials,” said Brentley. “Lee and Dan deserve a lot of credit for this. I mean, there are companies out there that are hiring ex-felons and don’t get any recognition. But these guys—I’ve never seen anything on this kind of scale.”
Bull said the company is poised to address three of Pittsburgh’s problems simultaneously: affordable housing, unemployed veterans and former felons.
An ex-offender himself, Bull said forgiveness is his prime motivation. He was forgiven, and given a second chance, and as a 50 percent owner in Nello, has done well. Others should have that chance. And these guys will.
In addition to quarterly raises, at the end of two years, members can get one of these houses, if they like, and will have the opportunity to take an ownership stake in the company.
“In two years, these guys will be the supervisors and managers for future employees, if they haven’t moved on to another company,” said Bull. “No matter how much you know or are committed to a new start, you need that hand up. These guys have almost completed this home in three weeks—and their official training hasn’t even started.”
At around 700 square feet, these single bedroom homes are larger than the “Tiny Homes” people may have seen on television or like the 350 square-foot one Eve Picker’s No Walls nonprofit built with the Urban Redevelopment Authority in Garfield.
Unlike that project which saw costs skyrocket due to unforeseen site and city code problems, the Work Pittsburgh single story, one bedroom, one-bath homes can go for as little as $65,000. Bull has presold 40 of them already. But they are all custom jobs, so the price depends on what the client wants in, and on it.
“You’re only limited by what you can do with a box,” said Bull. “Put it over a full basement, on a slab, reinforce the roof and put another on top. You want marble counter tops, walnut paneling? It’s up to you.”
The model will have inexpensive, composite board cabinets. Leon Spearman, who was assembling them, said he loves working with this crew. Spearman served six years in the marines, including nine months in Afghanistan.
“I tried law enforcement when I got back but the Pittsburgh police wouldn’t hire me. You know that discrimination case the ACLU just won against them? Yeah, I was part of that,” he said.
“But I’ve been here since Sept. 8 and I love it. The motivation is high, everyone’s excited, a real team atmosphere. It’s a blessing to work with a good group of guys who all have a vision.”
Eventually, Bull and Davis want the Work Pittsburgh warehouse to also serve as an incubator for ex-offender entrepreneurs, collocating office space with related ventures, while maintaining the homebuilding showroom. That work will be expanding also, as the facility has enough space to build three micro homes at a time.
The first 14 of the homes will be going into a development by Pritchard Hill Capital on Arlington Avenue above the South Side.
Bull said that’s why they chose the warehouse site they did.
“It’s a straight line from the (county) jail, to our facility, to the building sight up there on the hill,” he said. “So the guys can see where they’ve been, where they are, and where they are going.”
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