BY JEANETTE LENOIR
This may be hard to believe but affordable housing is a reality for many families across New York City. Since its inception in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has transformed the lives of numerous families across the country. And, since its separate grouping in 1984, Habitat NYC has done the same in all five boroughs of NYC. In a partnership with New York City Housing Authority, (NYCHA) Karen Haycox, CEO, Habitat NYC is helping families achieve the dream of homeownership in one of the wealthiest places on the planet. “While we do that, we are also busily building multifamily homes in and around the city and we’re very close to what will effectively be the largest multifamily homes, a series of homes ever constructed under one roof across the habitat universe.”
That project is called Sydney House; a 57-unit co-op in the Bronx. Haycox says, “For me that’s really one of the most compelling things about Habitat for Humanity. It’s that how we do what we do, is very much in context with the city that we call home.” Haycox says the construction of the co-op differs significantly from Habitat for Humanity’s typical construction of single family housing and it’s this very evolution that allows Habitat NYC to make affordable housing a reality for many in the city, which in turn helps to slow and perhaps reverse the process of gentrification, and also preserving a unique culture.
A major barrier to homeownership in NYC according to Haycox lies within the prospective homeowners themselves. “The first time you go through that process it can be frightening.” She explains her own experience as a first-time homeowner and the fear that came along with it. “When I bought my first home I honestly, practically and intellectually knew that everything was fine but for the first year I lived as if somebody was going to knock on my door and tell me there’s been a huge mistake.” She says many families don’t apply for the program because they don’t think they’ll qualify for reasons like credit indiscretions, criminal history or they may think the program is for those in worse economic conditions than what they find themselves in. “They will self select out of the process,” she says. Nonetheless, Haycox explains that although the organization works like any other conventional lender would, Habitat for Humanity is mission, not business driven. “It is our mission to find an opportunity for these families and we don’t just look at the numbers, we look at the whole package.” As far as legal issues are concerned, Haycox says the organization believes in “leaving the past in the past.” On the other hand, she says, “As long as there are no pending legal issues that could be problematic for the neighbors… because in effect we’re building families and their success in the future, but we’re also building neighborhoods and communities.” She says the organization does its best to ensure there are no pending charges with a family that would put their neighbors and other members of their community in any danger. “We believe in social justice and restorative justice so if they have committed a crime in their past and paid their due then that is none of our business. We look forward not backwards.”
Those interested in a Habitat NYC home can fill out an application on line. They will then be contacted by Habitats’ Housing Services Department for a review of their application. “They ask a couple of clarifying questions around the standard elements that you might expect like income, debts, challenges, and who will be in the household and we also look at credit history.” Haycox adds that if families don’t clear the initial hurdles the organization can still work with them to overcome them through various programs. “So that they can actually work on those things if they’re willing and come back and reapply.” Pathways To Partnership, (P2P) is one such program that can keep a family on track to achieving homeownership in NYC.
Haycox explains that achieving homeownership is possible through partnership with a prospective family. She says it’s similar to a self-help housing model. “Meaning that the families must be involved in our organization. They must dedicate 250-hours of sweat equity toward the construction of our homes or other programs.” She says families can volunteer at different build sites, work in the office licking envelopes or doing other volunteer jobs. “And that time is logged toward their willingness to partner.” Thus, it’s need, willingness to partner, and the ability to pay a low interest mortgage Haycox says are the essential elements to achieving homeownership in the city.
Despite all these efforts gentrification is real and taking shape across all 5 boroughs of NYC, making the possibility of homeownership for struggling families an optical illusion. Unless you’re a member of the wealthy elites flocking to the Big Apple, the mere combination of the two words, NYC and homeownership, is an oxymoron. And, Haycox says the problem is an extremely serious one because the city is in danger of becoming the largest moated community in the nation. She says homeownership in NYC is at 31-percent, which is less than the national average and the demand for affordable housing stock isn’t keeping up, “We’ve lost more than 330-thousand affordable rental units to the open market and we know that more than a third of families pay over 50-percent of their monthly income towards rent… homeownership must play a role in the city and although homeownership can’t be available for everybody, it’s strictly a numbers game; it really needs to have a place at the table. She says Habitat NYC sees that as a core function of the organization, “To leverage and to strengthen the voice for affordable homeownership as part of the city’s plan and the state’s plan going forward.”
Leveling the playing field is made possible through partnerships with organizations like NYCHA, Housing Preservation and Development, (HPD) and other state and city programs that help the group with subsidies and other affordable mortgage products. However, proposed budget cuts under the administration of President Trump is threatening to slash much of the funding that has been possible through the various partnerships Habitat NYC relies on for its mission driven work. “Those kinds of programs are important to our ability to thrive. To get these units built we depend on the pre-unit subsidies that we receive from the city and the state, and we also depend on the proceeds of the sale because families get an affordable mortgage and we sell the units and get the proceeds from the sale.”
Another element of affordable homeownership is keeping the homes affordable in perpetuity and Haycox says Habitat is looking at the community land trust model and currently responding to a land trust offer from the city, which would effectively keep the units of housing Habitat NYC develops affordable for the next generations of homeowners. “There are mechanisms that extend the affordability of the units in place but many times after the first sale those protections burn off, so what we’re looking to do is extend the length of time that the units remain affordable.” Preservation is another piece to the low income housing puzzle. Haycox says her group is developing a new preservation program that will intervene with the existing low-income co-ops to update and strengthen the buildings and bring them into compliance. Additionally, Habitat is also forming a Community Development Financial Institution, (CDFI) to keep mortgages affordable for Habitat for Humanity families, “Which would allow us to lend them money to be able to complete some needed repairs, etc.” She says it makes sense to preserve existing units as needed, rather than build new ones. Albeit, the proposed program is facing an uncertain future if Trump’s budget is adopted.
With so much on the line for the future of affordable housing in NYC, Haycox says the proposed budget cuts and tax reforms lurking like a frightening shadow and anticipated this October have them on “pins and needles” about the outlook of Habitat for Humanity. “We are focused on being poised to react and act depending on how the federal budget comes down. I think there’s a great deal of unrest and uncertainty about how that might impact us directly or indirectly.” She says what her group can control is philanthropy. “Philanthropy always and forever will be at our core and trying to change the hearts and minds of volunteers and funders to value and prioritize housing and the important role it can play in the community we serve.” Haycox also acknowledges that a significant tax reform to the current system could negatively impact how non-profits operate in the future if donors loose tax breaks that encourages giving. “We are in a very uncertain time…so, we’re all scanning the news sources vigorously looking for some sign or indication of what the future might hold.”
Habitat NYC raises about $5-million a year Haycox says. One fund raising avenue beneficial to the group is through its ReStore, “It’s like a thrift store for building materials,” she says. The ReStore is located on Northern Blvd in Queens. “You can buy donated or gently used furniture and furnishing… you can also buy building materials and contracting materials and high-priced items like appliances at a greatly discounted price.” The supplementary to the ReStore is the environmental component that diverts material that would otherwise go to a landfill.
Homeownership is a commitment and not for everybody. The application process can be somewhat intimidating and it can take about 24-months from filling out the application to moving in to your new home. Nonetheless, Haycox says housing is fundamental to the long-term success of a family and despite the challenges ahead Habitat NYC will continue to do what it has done since its inception; helping families achieve a fundamental American dream; homeownership.