Growing up in southwest Detroit, Sonia Alvarado learned how to fix houses from her parents, both union carpenters.
“There were always projects going on. I know a lot about construction and the trades because of both of my parents,” she said. “It was very much doing all the work, learning how to do stuff.”
Later on, Alvarado parented and adopted eight children and shared that knowledge with her kids, eventually building a family business rehabbing homes. During COVID, she and her husband split up, and he kept the company. Alvarado decided to branch out in a different direction and get trained for lead abatement work.
Detroit needs certified lead contractors – most of whom work in private contracting companies – and inspectors. In 2019, the city received $9.7 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for lead abatement work in southwest Detroit, where more than 75% of homes were built before 1940. Any home built before 1978, when Congress banned lead in paint, is at risk of having lead paint. It aims to mitigate or abate lead in 450 Detroit homes in the 48209 ZIP code, prioritizing those with children, who are especially vulnerable to lead exposure. The program has faced obstacles between the pandemic and a shortage of contractors.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can lead to learning, behavior, hearing, and speech problems. Exposed kids may have reduced IQ and attention problems. Once a child is identified as having an elevated level of lead, it’s imperative to identify and reduce sources of exposure from the child’s environment. There is no safe blood level for lead. Children in Detroit face 1.5 times the rate of elevated blood levels as those in Michigan.
Alvarado is bilingual; she speaks both Spanish and English. That, combined with her construction knowledge, makes her an excellent candidate for the city’s lead abatement program in 48209, where many families speak only Spanish and where more than 16,000 Hispanic contractors live and work in the City of Detroit, according to census data.
Alvarado connected with Bridget Espinosa, whose firm Puente Cultural Integration had begun a lead contractor training program to certify Spanish-speaking and bilingual contractors to do lead abatement work. She received the training along with four of her children, who are also bilingual.
After becoming certified, Alvarado was hired by the city as a building inspector, focused on inspecting lead abatement projects. She said that having a bilingual background is crucial to completing projects where homeowners speak Spanish because language barriers can result in miscommunication and delays. Alvarado was about to head out to a home where confusion over the presence of a family dog had resulted in a project being delayed for nearly a year.
“Even small things can make a big difference – so having bilingual inspectors and contractors is absolutely necessary,” she said.
The training program is operating with $300,000 in grant funding from the Erb Family Foundation and the Gilbert Family Foundation over two years. Global Detroit, a local economic development nonprofit, serves as Puente’s fiscal agent. The City of Detroit Housing & Revitalization Department is a partner in the project and is providing an additional $50,000 in reimbursable funding to Global Detroit. According to Espinosa, many certified workers have found work with contracting firms or have launched their own businesses.
Puente offers two paths to certification – a four-day training to become a certified lead worker or five days to become a lead supervisor, both are taught in either Spanish or English. An additional one-day EPA certification in RRP (Renovation, Repair, and Painting) is also included.
So far, 42 Spanish-speaking or bilingual lead contractors have been certified through the program; they hope to train more than 100 over the two years. Out of those certified, 17 have been women. Some of those women have launched commercial cleaning businesses to service lead abatement companies, which Espinosa describes as a “win-win” for everyone involved.
“These women are making substantially more than they would have made just working for a general contractor that’s not doing lead abatement work. And they’re providing a huge service to the lead abatement companies,” she said.
When Espinosa first connected with the city in 2019, she discovered “they didn’t have a single contractor that was certified that spoke Spanish, and they knew that 75% of the homes that they were going to be fixing up had Spanish speaking residents,” she said.
Espinosa’s firm, Puente, provides small business coaching services to Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs, including small contractors, in the region.
“It’s not easy for our immigrant community to just sign up for a class and take it, and at the time, when we first started this program, there was no such thing as a bilingual class – it didn’t exist, “ Espinosa said. So she started by finding a company with one certified bilingual contractor and launched the first bilingual cohort in 2020.
“It was the very first time in the history of the state of Michigan that there was a Spanish language class taught and that we had Spanish language supervisors certified,” Espinosa said. “The whole thing was done in Spanish – the class was taught in Spanish, the testing was done in Spanish.”
Through her work, Espinosa has found that immigrant contractors require extra support beyond bilingual courses. So Espinosa and her team take extra steps to assist with the test, helping register cohort members with the state testing center, offering transportation to Lansing to take the test up to three times, feeding them, providing business technical assistance, and offering a stipend to cover time off from work to attend the training. The total cost of these services runs about $3,500 per participant.
Espinosa said continued challenges include the test itself, although it is translated into Spanish, there is not a universal dialect and is very different from the one spoken by most of the participants from Mexico.
“And so we are kind of filling in that gap,” she said. “We are that bilingual bridge to support the connectivity between our immigrant community and resources and opportunities.”
The Puente team is enrolling for its next bilingual cohorts which will take place Nov. 7-11, 2022, and again in February. The deadline to enroll is Oct.17. All Spanish-speaking workers from Metro Detroit are eligible to apply. More information can be found at businessalianzas.org/events or by contacting Puente General Manager Yazmin Payan at 313-349-0089 or by email email@example.com.
Co-published in English and Spanish with El Central Media