Business puts vets to work rehabbing foreclosed houses
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In an 87-year-old bungalow in West Milwaukee, Sue Loomans is addressing, with a single project, three of the nation's concerns: jobless military veterans, the foreclosure crisis and the environment.
With a work crew made up mostly of vets referred through Department of Veterans Affairs programs, Loomans' new business - PropertyVets LLC - is renovating a foreclosed house, an undertaking that includes the installation of energy-saving systems and appliances and the use of nontoxic finishes.
As fresh paint goes on the walls, the old kitchen floor is peeled back, an old furnace is dismantled and a state-of-the-art unit is installed, the vets are able to use their existing home-renovation skills or learn new ones.
When they're finished with the house in the 5200 block of W. National Ave., PropertyVets plans to rent it out or sell it. Then the fledgling company plans to tackle another foreclosed house - and another, and another.
"The idea is to do a really good job with these homes, and in most cases, manage them as rentals," said Loomans, a former Air Force officer. "Now and then we may actually sell one of the properties. But what it's really about, aside from turning houses around, is being a continual source for employing veterans."
If it is successful, it could serve as a model for cities across the nation.
"There's no shortage of vets, no shortage of foreclosures," Loomans said. "And what I'm finding is there's no shortage of people wanting to rent good housing."
The unemployment rate for all armed forces veterans in 2011 was 8.3% - right around the general jobless rate at year's end - but 12.1% for vets who have served on active duty since September 2001, a group referred to as Gulf War-Era II veterans. The jobless rate for male veterans ages 18 to 24 was an alarming 29.1%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meanwhile, foreclosures remain a drag on the entire housing market and create instability in neighborhoods where there are high concentrations. In southeastern Wisconsin, mortgage foreclosure filings were up about 7% this year through August, compared with the same time in 2011.
Loomans, whose 17 years in uniform included work as a meteorologist and as an academic instructor at the Air Force Academy, said she looked at many foreclosed houses around Milwaukee before bidding on the W. National Ave. bungalow, which is right across the street from the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center - a location that provides additional visibility for her effort. She bought it for $37,000.
"Like a lot of foreclosures in Milwaukee, this one had all of the copper wiring and plumbing stolen, ripped out," she said. "The day I made an offer, someone stole the AC compressor out of the back yard. But it's a place that has good bones. It's still got some of the original woodwork in good condition. So it was a good starting project for us."
Loomans already had a couple of other rental properties and used the equity in those - along with personal resources - to finance the purchase and renovation costs of the house. By the time it's done, she expects to have put $40,000 to $50,000 more into rehabbing it. She may sell it rather than rent it out for quicker return, which then can be reinvested in another PropertyVets project, she said.
The house will be "like new inside" when it's done, the fruits of the labor - and the heart - her crew is putting into it, she said.
"The VA sent over five guys who had various types of experience," she said. "One guy has worked as a mason. There was another fellow who was a union painter for 18 years, so he knows how to take care of a lot of the interior repairs. Another man worked as an electrical foreman, so he knows a lot of just general construction things and he is able to help out our electricians some."
Only one crew member is directly on her payroll.
"The others are in a VA program where basically they kind of act like a staffing agency," she said.
The purpose of the VA's transitional employment program is "to rehabilitate veterans who are in need of a work regimen with monetary incentives," Loomans said.
She reports the hours worked by her crew.
"They pay my workers and then invoice me," Loomans said.
She hires contractors - companies run by vets if she can find them - for parts of the project that require special expertise.
The PropertyVets' laborer with masonry experience is former Marine Thomas Turnmire. He said he hopes PropertyVets buys multiple homes so he and other vets can keep coming in to do the rehab.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it's rewarding," Turnmire said. "And working with fellow vets is a bonus, too."
Another former Marine, Paul Holz, has been doing demolition work and carpentry at the house.
"There are so many skills out there to learn from this, and from other people," Holz said. "Sue is helping out veterans, and it's a great thing. It's therapeutic for people who are in treatment. It's therapeutic for people coming back from the war not knowing what they're going to do. There should be more programs like this. It helps everyone."
Loomans, a former executive director of the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance, got started with her PropertyVets idea by contacting VETransfer, a program that encourages veterans to start or expand businesses.
"They were able to set me in the right direction in terms of starting a business and connecting with people and resources that could help grow the idea," Loomans said. "I became connected with some folks at the VA who were able to give me good leads on vets who need employment and who might benefit from getting involved in such a program."
Greg Meier, a co-founder of VETransfer, said he thinks Loomans is on to something.
"Sue's a social entrepreneur," Meier said. "Her goal is to scale this up on a national basis within the business model she's developing. It's a good all-around kind of model. And she's got it going now."
Loomans said the project should be finished sometime in October.
"This house has really become an expression of what they can do with an opportunity," Loomans said. "And that's really all they want. I think they're very happy that this is not a charity, that they've joined a business. We're already thinking down the road on how we can improve our process and bring in more vets and work on more houses. It's really turning out to be much more that what I ever thought it would be with our first project."