Habitat for Humanity of Dutchess County had a problem. Someone had given the organization a house, with the stipulation that it had to be moved. If you’re a not-for-profit dedicated to creating viable homes for people in need, the outright gift of a whole, solid house is a godsend. It’s the kind of problem that you want. Houses don’t grow on trees, so to speak; nor do they fall out of the sky like pennies from you-know-where. But this one did – which presented the local Habitat Dutchess folks with a big challenge: to move an intact structure from its plot of land in Staatsburgh and reposition it on an empty lot in Poughkeepsie, and do it fast.
The 1998 Cape Cod-style dwelling, built on 6.5 rolling acres, was owned by a retired priest. When he died and a couple from Long Island bought the property, Dave Craft of D. F. Craft Construction was hired to build a new, larger home on the site. “The builder made the connection to get the house donated to us,” says Habitat’s executive director Maureen Brennan Lashlee. “The real truth is that it broke his heart to think there was this perfectly good home – which, by the way, had handicapped accessibility – and to think he’d be tearing that down, and the family we were trying to find a home for would continue to live in substandard housing for no good reason: That was the passion that brought this project to the table.”
With only a couple of months to make all the logistical arrangements, Vassar graduate Daniel Gutowski, an intern at Habitat Dutchess, created an online fundraising campaign to cover extraneous costs. Lashlee says, “We have not traditionally done fundraising, and Daniel did our very first online campaign, which was enormously successful.” The intern, who grew up in the area and attended Our Lady of Lourdes and Vassar College, is now the official fundraising manager and hopes to become a full-time employee soon.
“This is our first time moving a house, and the first time Habitat for Humanity has done this,” says Gutowski. “We were donated a modular home, but we had to come up with the funds to actually move it. Our fundraiser was called ‘The Moving Project,’ and our goal was $50,000 to keep the project cost-free. We only achieved 30 percent of that: $15,000. But we were overwhelmed with the support because, like Maureen said, it was our first time doing online fundraising and we didn’t have any expectations. So $15,000 was impressive to all of us.”
“While everyone was generous with their time and trying to give us the best costs possible, there are huge insurance costs in doing something like this,” says Lashlee. “All the professionals involved in the move did have to charge us something. We had to put a budget together for that. Daniel had to break it down into manageable bites. We have plumbers who work at 100 percent volunteered time, and J. D. Johnson donated $1,000 worth of materials. But there’s still the actual move, and the insurance for it was through the roof. From excavating the property for the foundation to turning the key when the family moves in, it’s probably going to be $50,000 – which is about a third of what it would ordinarily cost us, if we started from scratch.”
Lashlee explained that when a house gets moved, the second floor is demolished and the roof gets folded down onto the house itself. “It gets separated into two pieces. Everyone there was in awe of this process. Then you lift that roof back up again and seal it for the winter” – and have the utilities with Central Hudson reconnected, and get the City to hook up to the gas main, and sheetrock and finish and paint the second floor. But before any of these tasks could be addressed, prepping the empty lot and coordinating all the components proved to be a monumental one. Superior Walls dug and poured the foundation. LCS Modular Construction handled the house during the lifting, setting and reassembly. Costanzi Crane lifted it, and Sullivan Transportation brought the house to Poughkeepsie.
“Meanwhile, once the budget was put together, Daniel started the fundraising campaign. We are absolutely in the business of homes for the working poor. We are not about building a house; we are about building a community. Daniel came up with the concept of having ‘champions’ for this house, and every champion took on the responsibility of finding people who would want to support it in some way, such as an in-kind or a cash contribution. That was the beginning of this model, and while I realize we did not hit our goal, we created a model that will be sustainable. We’ll use this model going forward.”
The overall Habitat for Humanity model is important to understand. Gutowski explains, “A big misconception is that Habitat homes are given to people in need. While the people we partner with do have tremendous need, they also have sustainable sources of income and pay for a mortgage. This home will be sold to a Habitat partner.”
“Our houses are costed-out based on 29 percent of the family’s gross income,” says Lashlee, “including taxes and homeowners’ insurance. We use a percent less than the national standard. We do that because we recognize that our families are the least likely to see a raise or a bonus every year, and we’re trying to keep them at a sustainable monthly payment that will allow them to be successful at home ownership.
“We do require that our families have strong creditworthiness. We look at things like, if they’re unbanked, do they pay their regular payments on time? And we have partnerships with banks that are more than willing, based on our work with the family, to give them a mortgage. And we give a subsidy to that mortgage so it becomes a zero-interest mortgage. And that’s the key for our families. They can stay on target with their budget. Our partnership has created a family that is willing to pay. A little-known fact: Habitat for Humanity is the fifth-largest homebuilder in the United States; we also have the single lowest default rates of any mortgage provider. Our families are well-vetted and well-trained. It’s a great organization to work with.”
On November 8, transport trailers carried the house to its new address at the corner of Smith and Harrison Streets, where it will transform a vacant lot into a safe and affordable home in the Fifth Ward, a neighborhood now becoming a model of community revitalization. “Moving the house was a very cost-effective thing for us to do, and has us thinking about doing more panelized, energy-efficient and cost-effective building. We’ll be celebrating our 30th birthday next year. My personal goal is to be in a continuous state of building here in Dutchess County. Would we want to build five houses a year, or ten? The need is there; we could build 20 houses a year and not keep up with the need. But at the same time, we have to look at sustainability from a cost standpoint. We tell our families they have to be self-sufficient, and we should be walking the walk, too.”
Along with the annual holiday campaign, Lashlee mentions the new ReStore facilities in the region as being viable sources of continuous income for Habitat projects. “We’re seeing up to a thousand customers a month, coming in to purchase something. As the word gets out, the numbers get higher, and the quality of the donations gets higher.” As for the volunteers who do the actual work, she warns, “Once you’re in, you’re in. It can be exhausting work, but I can’t think of very many people who come once and don’t come back again. There’s something about the camaraderie on the build and meeting the family. What we’re starting to find is that it’s as beneficial to the volunteers to meet people they’d otherwise never have met, just by virtue of geography. I hear over and over again from our volunteers, ‘Wow, that was the most wonderful experience. I had no idea how much people love living in Poughkeepsie.’”
While the couple who donated the house wishes to remain anonymous, Habitat Dutchess thanks the many companies and individuals who contributed to this project, including the generous contributions from WBG, LLP, Unilock, Ulster Savings, netEffx, Dale and Donald Adams, Tim Ondrey, CGR LLP, Marshall & Sterling Insurance, Anne Constantinople, D. F. Craft Construction, Viking Industries, David Freeman, Architect, AmeriCorps/VISTA, Bill and Carol Rhode, Stephen Caracci, Karl Mannain & Sons, Sherwood Modular, Sullivan County Transport, Alvin O’Hare Plumbing, Corewood Ventures, Costanzi Crane, J. D. Johnson Co. Plumbing, Prime Print Shop, Odd Fellows/UA Local Union No. 21 and Joe and Maria LePore.
The Habitat Dutchess office is located at 45 Catherine Street in Poughkeepsie. For more information about volunteering, call (845) 475-9336 or visit www.habitatdutchess.org.