As Habitat Newburgh ends its 20th year it looks back

Posted in Uncategorized | Last Updated January 14, 2020

Habitat Newburgh: making Newburgh neighborhoods livable again

 

Habitat's 100th home family

Habitat’s 100th home family

In October 2019, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh passed the keys for three homes to three families marking the anniversary of its twentieth year.

The houses represented Habitat Newburgh’s 98th, 99th, and 100th builds, respectively. Quite an accomplishment!

When the keys were given to the families (all of whom had themselves invested plenty of sweat equity into the homes, an often unknown but required component of Habitat ownership) three more homes entered the City of Newburgh’s tax rolls.

Adding newly built or renovated and restored homes as city residencies is a significant and stabilizing feature in a city that has gone from prosperity to despair, but that is rising again.

Reclaiming gritty city blocks

Located at 118, 124, and 126 William Street, the houses are on a particularly gritty city block where Habitat Newburgh is transforming multiple houses.

With the help of partner families and volunteers, the structures transition from vacant boarded-up properties into beautiful and liveable single-family homes.

Habitat Newburgh Live Work

This house at 123 Washington Street was a Habitat Live-Work Build covered here.

One hundred homes in two decades

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh’s achievement, 100 homes in two decades, is a standout accomplishment.

This is true for a number of reasons.

First of all, the need for safe and affordable, single-family housing product is great everywhere, especially in economically stressed cities like Newburgh.

A challenging housing situation

Dilapidated houses marked Newburgh's decay, but now are being renovated

City blocks that once suffered from dilapidated buildings are being restored

The city’s housing situation is challenging with a decaying inventory that must be wrestled back to viability through the costly processes of asbestos and lead abatement.

Add to this the fact that many properties have been owned for years by uncaring absentee landlords.

Median incomes here lag considerably behind the national average, public transportation is insufficient and unemployment is a major concern.

All of this exists against a backdrop of rare beauty: the architectural treasure chest that is Newburgh’s historic East End, bracketed between the glorious Newburgh Bay, the masterfully designed Downing Park, and St. George’s Cemetary: spectacular green spaces complementing an urban cityscape.

A changing Newburgh

These charms have increasingly attracted an influx of artists, makers and professionals with ties to New York City and Brooklyn.

At the same time these groups have been moving in, workers from Mexico and Central American countries arrived looking for work.

These facts have created challenges and opportunities for all.

Since 1999, Habitat’s model of collaborative affordable homeownership proves it’s possible to move the needle and reclaim neighborhoods.

Downing Park in Newburgh looking south towards Bannerman Island

The spectacular view from Downing Park, the urban greenspace designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in honor of Newburgh son Andrew Jackson Downing, their mentor

Faith in a simple formula

Habitat operates with faith in a simple formula: people with comfortable homes, are far more likely to be able to put together and maintain the elements and structure of a stable and decent life.

The Habitat folks will be the first to tell you they haven’t made this formula work alone, though.

Nor does it happen in a vacuum. The secret sauce that makes it happen is collaboration.

“A lot of issues just have to do with people not working together,” says Habitat’s Executive Director Matthew Arbolino.

A native Newburgher and NFA grad with a background in education, program coordination, sustainability and business, his travels took him to New York City, New England, California and Viet Nam before joining Habitat Newburgh as Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator in 2016.

“The Newburgh Community Land Bank, Safe Harbors of the Hudson, RUPCO, RECAP, the Newburgh Ministry — there are a lot of smart nonprofit people working together now.

We don’t have to agree with each other 100 %, and we don’t always, but there’s so much more collaboration and cooperation than I can remember having seen before.”

Bill Murphy, one of Habitat of Newburgh's founders

Bill Murphy, a lifelong contractor, who was one of Habitat’s core founders and its first president

The beginning

“You could see the sky…”

“You walked in the front door and you could see the sky, like so many of them we worked on,” says Bill Murphy, a lifelong contractor who was one of Habitat’s core founders and the first president of its Board of Directors, of that very first Habitat house. “It was a shell.”

But Habitat itself was already more than a shell. An initial meeting in January of 1999 drew 77 enthusiastic people.

“We asked people what committee they would like to serve on, and nearly everyone signed up for something,” Murphy recalls.

“Then in June, we had a meeting with a representative of Habitat International present. They told us it would take 12 to 18 months to become an affiliate, and we said, ‘We can’t wait. We’re doing this now; we’re ready to go.’

We pushed him. We’d already been in contact with the city about properties.”

It was October when, after completing the enormous amount of requisite paperwork, the group officially became a Habitat affiliate.

A couple of scant weeks later, Murphy was standing in what would be Pablo Cruz’s house in the Heights, looking up through the roof at the sky.

The time was right, the hearts were willing, and the momentum snowballed. “We just started building and trying to raise money and it grew,” says Murphy.

“People would come out to help and they liked it, so they’d bring their friends. Their friends would not only work but maybe contribute money. So here we are, 20 years later.”

Deirdre Glenn First Executive Director of Habitat of Greater Newburgh

Dierdre Glenn, Habitat Newburgh’s first executive director

Dierdre Glenn, Habitat Newburgh’s first executive director, helped expand the organization’s building capacity from two to nine houses per year during her almost ten years at the helm.

She too is a native, an NFA grad who went on to NYU to major in art history and worked as an archaeologist.

Besides her Habitat role, Glenn developed the Newburgh Armory Unity Center and served the city as director of planning and development.

“I got involved first as a volunteer and worked on the very first house,” Glenn recalls. “Right from the get-go, the sounding board that Bill (Murphy) put together was phenomenal. The experience was a primer on how to form a not-for-profit.”

Building Habitat

“He assembled numbers of people with a variety of talents and backgrounds,” Glenn remembers.

“The group was diverse, there was a lot of outreach knowhow, and everyone was totally committed to the Habitat concept.”

From the very beginning, realizing that one home here and another there would not be sustainable, Habitat worked on chunks.

“You have to rebuild neighborhoods,” says Glenn. “So right from the get-go, unlike other affiliates, we started purchasing three or four houses at a time in targeted areas.”

Most of the methodology, though, was and is classic Habitat.

“One of the best capacity building models is the Habitat model, which I adhered to.pretty strictly. They spell it out: if you want to build five houses, this is what you need.

Habitat International is terrifically supportive.”

Homes are built or restored using volunteer labor, and Habitat makes no profit on the sales. Prospective homeowners undergo an extensive background check including character references, employer interviews, and an audit of their finances.

Once approved, they contribute 500 hours of “sweat equity” and take on an affordable mortgage with monthly payments (including taxes and insurance) that do not exceed 30% of the household’s monthly income.

Collectively, Newburgh’s Habitat households pay over half a million a year in school and city taxes.

Land Bank Revitalization Success Story at 13 -15 Chamber Street, Newburgh, N.Y.

13-15 Chambers Street, Newburgh N.Y. The one-story building houses the Newburgh Land Bank

One of Habitat’s strongest allies has been the Newburgh Community Land Bank, a charitable not-for-profit established in 2012 and funded by state grants that permit it to purchase “zombie” derelict properties from the city, do basic cleanout, abatement and stabilization work, and turn them over to buyers, quite a few of whom have been Habitat families.

The Faith Community: A Habitat Ally

St. George's Episcopal Church, Newburgh, N.Y.

Church steeples, like St. Georges Church pictured here, dot the landscape. Churches provide tremendous support to Habitat Newburgh.

Another strong ally is the faith community.

“Some of those churches, they’re almost like anchor tenants,” says Glenn.”They provide some stability that helps to keep an area from completely going under.”

Given the opportunity to join forces with Habitat, leaders and congregants alike have responded with money and energy.

Two of the three houses that changed hands at the October celebration were sponsored by faith coalitions (known in Habitat parlance as “faith builds) done Methodists & Friends and EpiscoBuild.

Many of the 100 houses to date have been funded in part or whole by faith coalitions, the members of which not only contribute money but actually also do the physical build work.

During Habitat’s annual Walk for Housing, each faith build coalition proudly displays a banner, and the congregants wear matching t-shirts in a show of unity.

Other allies are building still other aspects of Newburgh’s housing mix.

Kingston-based housing nonprofit  RUPCO recently renovated 15 historic homes into 45 mixed-income, LEED-certified rentals.

The project, East End Apartments, pulled in many of the agencies that are part of Habitat’s universe and won a 2019 Excellence in Historic Preservation award from the New York State Preservation League.

Safe Harbors of the Hudson, meanwhile, offers a blend of supportive housing for the disabled and artists’ lofts.

Rupco renovated a number of buildings near St. Luke’s Hospital in Newburgh

Hacking at the roots

“We are seeing that cycle of poverty break. We have families whose kids grew up in these homes and are off to college, another family where the son and wife were able to decrease their use of asthma meds by around 85 % in a year.

We have 22 houses on East Parmenter, eight between South Miller and Johnston, and the neighbors advocate for themselves as a neighborhood — things like getting a street with a hard bend made into a one-way, getting permanent trash cans where they’re needed.”

A police substation is soon to open on Johnston Street, part of an agreement between the city government and RUPCO.

Other complementary improvements are underway thanks to the Newburgh Ministry.

“A lot of factors come into play trying to help people transition from being residents into being inhabitants,” Arbolino says.

“People have been saying for years that the problem is drugs and violence; well, when you look at the absentee landlords and slumlords, the foreclosure rates on those buildings…it’s a huge destabilizing factor.”

The 100th house was sponsored by M&T Bank. Mark Stellwag, regional president for M&T’s Hudson Valley and Albany divisions and another lifetime Newburgher, has been a Habitat backer from the start.

“There’s nothing quite like homeownership to get people to feel invested in and committed to a community,” he says.

“Kids do better in school, there’s more career stability, just a whole lot of collateral benefits. You own a house on a block, you get more involved and aware.

You keep an eye on things. Life is just much better without lead paint and an uncaring landlord.”

Stellwag cites St. Luke’s Hospital’s new affiliation with Montefiore, the development of the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, the SUNY Orange campus, Mount St. Mary’s and the city’s rich, diverse culture as other powerful assets, along with thriving new businesses coexisting alongside long-time employers like Active Ventilation and Labella Strings.

“Will we face challenges? Of course,” says Stellwag. “But these neighborhoods, the houses have such great bones.

It’s a joy to see them coming back. We need more jobs, more opportunities, and those will come as we thrive. Problem-solving needs to be a joint effort between not-for-profits, community leaders, politicians businesses, residents — we all need to be pulling together, and a lot of talented people are doing that.”

Habitat offers a wide range of ways to get involved, from swinging a hammer to simply shopping at or donating to Habitat’s ReStore, which offers an eclectic variety of goods at a terrific discount.

Located at 38 S Plank Rd, Newburgh, NY 12550, the store has helped with an uptick in funding for Habitat Newburgh, since moving from headquarters to S. Plank Road, just off route 84.

Stop in, say hello and catch the glow — and find a sweet piece of furniture at a terrific discount. Tell a friend.

Organizations and businesses are invited to become involved as fundraising or building partners — or both.

Stellwag says it’s a blast. “We get a group together and spend the day working on a house, and Habitat makes sure the day has coffee breaks and truly excellent people, and people have the time of their lives,” he says. “We look forward to the second hundred homes…It’s the volunteers that make it go.

The ones who had the vision to start this were incredibly forward-thinking people.”

For more information on Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh, call 845-568-6035.