Where are you from?
I’m originally from the Bronx. My mom took a job up here in the Hudson Valley when I was in high school. We moved to Port Ewen first, and then Kingston.
And what is your background?
Before working at Habitat, I had a few different careers. I managed a bank branch, and I worked in deposit operations and trust and investments, for people at the other end of the spectrum. Later, I owned the Jolly Cow Ice Cream stand. And, I had a photography business.
How did you first become aware of Ulster Habitat?
The organization was founded in 1996 and it was fully volunteer at that time. My in-laws were volunteers and that is how I first learned about Ulster Habitat. They did amazing work in those early years, unstaffed.
How did you start working for the organization?
In 2012, they were looking for someone to come in and run the office, answer phones, process applications, and put some order to the filing system. I was the first staff member. First, I was the office manager, then affiliate director when we were given the building on Route 28. I’ve been the Executive Director since 2014.
What does your role entail as Executive Director?
Basically everything! We’re a very small organization. I oversee all staff, programming, fundraising, land acquisition and development. If it happens at Habitat, it falls under my purview.
Do you get to know all of the partner families?
Yes. But our selection process is blind. When I present to the board, I want to be a completely objective observer for every family. Even if I have clicked with some of them, I don’t want to tip my hand if I like one over another. I want to present to the board on whether or not they meet our criteria.
What is Habitat’s criteria for partner families?
- Do they have a need for housing?
- Are they able to pay an affordable mortgage?
- Are they able to put in sweat equity?
What happens if a family does not meet the criteria?
Sometimes people need to work on credit repair, or they don’t have enough credit just yet. We will work with them, or wait for them, until they’re ready. And, we keep in touch during that time. We stay in the loop as they work on things. So, initially, if it’s a no, it’s no for now. We always tell them: Here are the things you need to work on for it to be yes down the line.
Do families pay anything upfront?
They put money down for closing costs.
How long do builds take?
What kinds of transformation do you see in Habitat’s partner families through the process?
Stability. Most of our families have children. They all talk about their kids being able to play in their own backyards, in a space that is their own. One mother recently posted a photo of her kids making snow volcanoes in their backyard. One man was excited because there is a pond out back, and he wants to teach his kids how to fish. He also wants to build a fire pit so they can sit outside in the summer. Most of our families come from living situations with other family members, where they’re crowded out, or from small apartments where there isn’t that kind of outdoor play space for the kids. So, having that opportunity is really transformative for them. For the kids, that’s stability. They can now say, ‘This is my home. This is the place I do my homework. This is my room.’
At the very first dedication I ever did, years ago, the daughter was 7 or 8 years old at the time. And, she said to a friend of hers, “Do you want to go upstairs and see my room?” My room. She’d never had her own room before.
Another girl painted her ceiling black and her walls purple. Her family had always rented and she’d never been able to paint her room or hang things up on the walls.
It’s the freedom of knowing that something is yours when you’ve never had that feeling before…
We normally put vanities in the bathrooms but if you’re in a wheelchair, a vanity doesn’t work because you can’t roll up underneath it. So, he got a wall mount sink so they could roll up to it. The dad has been volunteering on site and he’s excited to watch it come together.
Do you go out to the building sites often?
I try to visit every week, or every other week. I love going to the work sites. I love the volunteers on the work site. It’s so exciting to see it all come together. And the volunteers are always so pleased with their progress. They like to show off what they’re working on.
Our volunteer crew is a tight knit group. Covid has been incredibly tough because, normally, we’d have eight people working on site. They enjoy each other’s company. Now, we max out on two or three workers per day so that we can keep everyone distanced. But, I’m pleased and proud to say that when we re-opened the site, the vast majority returned. There are only a couple who chose not to for health reasons, but their hard hats are waiting for them when they’re ready to come back.
Have you ever worked on the builds?
I don’t pick up a hammer because that is not the best use of my skill set. I work behind the scenes. I firmly believe in using people to the best use of their abilities, and hammering is not the best way for me to be helpful.
Can you talk about the process of finding land and acquiring property in Ulster County? Has that process changed over the years?
It’s gotten much more difficult, extraordinarily so. Once upon a time, Habitat would be gifted land for various reasons. And, once upon a time, land was much easier to come by, before the area was as popular as it currently is. Our challenge now, after fundraising, is finding land, and it’s a significant problem. It’s a two-pronged problem: 1) There’s very little on the market. 2) What is on the market is priced very high. We can’t afford the few properties that are available. They’re out of our range.
Every dime we spend on land acquisition drives up the price of the total house, which has only gone up, especially this past year, because lumber and building materials have gone through the roof in Coronavirus time. Generally, Habitat’s total development cost for a house is usually around $275k, but that will go up significantly with our next property due to the cost of lumber and land. And, right now, we don’t have anywhere to go. We will finish our current build in about six weeks and we don’t have another piece of property. We have bid on, or been interested in, three or four properties recently and we’ve been outbid on most of them—one had water and sewer issues.
Do you consider properties throughout Ulster County?
Yes. But, ideally, we try to build primarily in places that have water and sewer because it makes it easier for us to estimate our costs. And we try to stick to city-size lots, because, for most of our families who are coming from apartments or shared space with other family members, they’ve never been responsible for yard work and lawn mowing. We don’t want to create a burden for them. Or, if they’re working significant hours, we don’t want their weekends consumed by yard duty. They’ll be maintaining their own properties, so we’re careful to make sure it’s all manageable. We want them to be successful.
What about Ulster Habitat’s fundraising efforts?
For every home we sell, the family has a mortgage payment equal to 30% of their gross household income. We serve families in the 50-70% range of Area Median Income, so it’s common for a Habitat home sale price to be somewhere between $110,000-$175,000. With the rising cost of land and construction materials, the total development cost on a home now exceeds $275,000. So, that means for every build, we’re starting all over again. Some of that development cost is donated materials. Some of it is donated services and time, (our volunteer crew is amazing!). We’ve had a volunteer electrician on the last several builds who donated his services, and was willing to supervise BOCES students interested in electrical engineering. That’s worth thousands of dollars. Without our donors, we would not be able to do this incredible work. Their donations, together with partner family sweat equity and mortgage payments, create homes for those families that are only possible because of that generosity.
What do you love most about your job?
Dedication days—the ceremonial handing over of the house keys to the families. One of the things I love most is watching the family walk through the house with their friends and families, pointing out their kids’ rooms, and talking about how they’re going to decorate, and where the couch is going to go, and what it’s going to be like to cook in the kitchen and what they’re going to put in the yard…
These families have never thought that they would own a home. If it wasn’t for Habitat, they wouldn’t own a home. I love seeing them come back, after they’re all settled in, and listening to them tell stories about their first Christmases, their new schools, and all of their new friends in the neighborhood.
I also love witnessing the volunteers as they realize that the fact that they come and swing a hammer for eight hours a week is so very transformative to someone else’s life. Every form of volunteer work is important and vital to community survival, but there is something about building a home—and permanency, stability and structure. For the rest of your life, every time you drive by that house, you know that you had a piece and a part in it.
The same thing for our donors. There is just something so concrete in what we do. Some of our partner families have moved ten times in ten years attempting to find a stable place to raise their children and create a family life. This is now their place, their home. This is it. Most of these families say to us: “I’m never leaving here.”
I love to see the families experience that kind of pride, to know that they’ve participated in the building of it. There’s something so transformative about all of it—for the family who lives there, for the volunteer who helped the build, and for the donor who has been lucky enough to have a stable home life and thinks it’s worthy of their time and investment to be able to offer the same to someone else. It’s such an amazing thing for me to lead a team whose mission it is to make it happen.
My mother worked in nonprofits her entire life and my grandmother was an enormous believer in volunteerism—the value in it and what it brings to your own life to do so. So, even though I worked in the for-profit world first, there is some family destiny that led me to this place, a deeper calling here. That I believe comes from my family, particularly the women in my family who absolutely believed that alongside raising your own family and having gratitude for all you had – the way you show your gratitude is by helping to create opportunity for others.
I always volunteered for fundraising and different events for my kids’ schools when they were growing up. This just gave me the opportunity to do it on a bigger scale.
We have a great board. They are all local, drawn from all different fields: we have two attorneys, a president of a local bank, someone who works for a very large construction company out of Albany, a retired minister, and a retired engineer from IBM. They all bring really interesting perspectives as well as a spirit of volunteerism. They are invaluable and really believe in what we do.