Habitat for Humanity’s Newburgh Chapter Builds Homes for Local Families in Need
The salvagers: Habitat for Humanity is revitalizing Newburgh, one home at a time
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Cerrone Washington, a tall, lanky, 34-year old Gap distribution center employee, dashes down the street — his street — on his morning jog. It’s almost done: his new home on East Parmenter Street in Newburgh, newly bucolic with immaculate flower-lined front yards, tidy porches, and freshly painted houses. This once was one of the worst streets in one of the region’s worst cities, where a few years ago, a stranger recalls getting a gun pulled on him for no other reason than that he didn’t belong there. Now, Washington can’t wait to move into the house he helped build. Once a thriving city of stately mansions with a bustling main street, Newburgh has been called many ugly things in more recent times. The town of 29,000 residents, put asunder by that wretched threesome of urban scourges — unemployment, drugs, and crime — was called a “lost town” by Esquire in 1989, and last year New York magazine dubbed it “the murder capital of New York.” And against these charges it stood defenseless, because grim and grimy Newburgh was those things.
Today, however, many Newburghers are joining up to create something antithetical to all that ugliness. Amid so much misery, a push for affordable home ownership by the Greater Newburgh chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the worldwide organization first founded in 1976, has reached critical mass.
Building Blitz: In 2006, the Builders Association of the Hudson Valley (some of whom are shown at right) partnered with Newburgh Habitat for Humanity to build two homes, at 45-47 Chamber Street, in just five days
It began in 1999 when three local men got together and wondered what they could do to help a crumbling city. They started by buying three houses from the city for a dollar apiece. “We should have gotten change on them,” says David McTamaney, one of the Newburgh chapter founders, “because they were in terrible shape.” Ignoring questions about their sanity, the trio scrounged together the materials and tools needed to rehab the houses. “We begged,” says Bill Murphy, another founder. “We asked people we knew, friends, businesses, we did a walk-a-thon, a golf tournament — and it happened.” The houses were designed for minimal upkeep, finished, and sold to needy families. The blueprint was drawn. After those initial three houses, Newburgh’s Habitat chapter has either stripped down and rehabbed, or built from scratch, another 54 houses. (In early June, a Builders’ Blitz produced two houses in a mere five days.) More than 300 people — 200 of them children — now live in these structures, which have added more than $7 million to the city’s assessed property values and raised $250,000 in property taxes every year. Habitat’s Executive Director, Dr. Cathy Collins, hopes to complete the 100th house by 2016.
No other Habitat chapter in the area comes close — with 12 houses built since 1996, Ulster County is the second-most productive. This isn’t a reflection on Newburgh’s peers — who don’t have the advantage of a professional staff — but rather a product of its relentlessness. In response to the immense need, Newburgh’s Habitat has insisted on a breakneck pace. “The blight and devastation here is so concentrated that our effort to ameliorate that has to be concentrated as well so that there’s a momentum,” says Collins. “If we only build a few houses a year, it’s hard for people to see that change.”
And change is overdue. In 2000, long before the economy caved in on itself, Newburgh’s median household income lagged 60 percent behind the rest of Orange County. Now that 2.2 million subprime mortgages have failed or are about to fail nationally, bank loans are hard to come by. So Habitat offers an alternative.
Above, 45-47 Chambers street before construction. Below, the same lot (from another angle) on June 4
After buying up dilapidated houses or vacant lots, the organization deploys its volunteers, including the families who will live in the homes. To qualify, household income must be between 25 and 60 percent of the regional average — between $26,150 and $43,600 for a family of four. Some 1,800 Newburgh families fall within those parameters and are therefore eligible to apply. But not all of them demonstrate an ability to pay off a modest mortgage and a willingness to put in “sweat equity” of between 250 and 400 hours building the home, depending on the number of adults in the household. Once they are accepted, they set about accumulating their hours on various houses and are schooled in the budgetary skills of home ownership. When they near the end of this process, they’re assigned a home. After putting down $1,500 for it, they’ll take a 30-year, zero-interest mortgage of around $100,000, either directly from Habitat or a partner, and finally take ownership. Nationwide, less than two percent of the Habitat mortgages have defaulted.
Habitat takes a loss on virtually every house (the average total development cost of each one is close to $200,000), and moves on to the next property. So to enable a structural deficit, it relies on considerable fund-raising efforts. Its ReStore (located at 125 Washington Street) refurbishes donated furniture, light fixtures, and building materials before donating them to current projects or reselling them to generate profit for Habitat. Corporate sponsors also help out with some items; Whirlpool, for instance, contributes a free stove and fridge to every home nationwide. Architects and engineers donate their time too, while electricians use the Habitat properties as a training ground for their apprentices. In all, Habitat Newburgh has a core workforce of 200, supplemented with some 2,500 onetime volunteers, who are recruited through church groups, company team-building days, and other group activities every year.
The net impact on a neighborhood is considerable. “As we start taking the worst houses on the street and turning them into the nicest houses on the street,” says McTamaney, “other folks say, ‘You know what? Maybe I will replace my front porch steps.’ ” On a few occasions, a few houses turned by Habitat sparked a revival of the entire street.
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