Former Woodstock town supervisor and current real estate agent par excellence John LaValle recalls his first real experience with Habitat for Humanity’s Ulster County efforts. He’d known many who worked with the nonprofit when he went to work for the state Division of Housing after his stint with Woodstock government. But then, in 1998, he asked some former students of his wife why they had paint all over their clothes and they asked LaValle if he’d help them paint the new bedroom in their new house.
“That was Habitat’s first building project in Ulster County,” LaValle said. “Within a year I was on the board.”
He was speaking soon after he’d stepped down as Habitat’s Ulster County President and Chairman of the Board…and heard the organization he’d headed twice in 15 years was going to name its ReStore on Route 28 (where Weidy’s budget warehouse used to be) in his honor.
Habitat started up in the south in the 1970s and 80s as a means of providing affordable housing, and ownership, in a way that benefitted those helping and being helped. Initiator Millard Fuller pumped up his organization’s presence by working throughout Appalachia and then, in 1984, brought on former President Jimmy Carter as a key volunteer.
In Ulster County, Humanity started up in 1996 and finished that first house LaValle helped with the painting of in 1998.
“Our offices were borrowed, at Ulster Savings bank, for years,” LaValle recalls.
Here’s how the deal works. Ulster County Habitat for Humanity says it “operates in established neighborhoods either by rehabilitating houses or building new homes. Families are chosen based upon demonstrated need and a steady source of income to repay the zero-interest mortgage. Families invest 300 hours of their own “sweat-equity” labor into the houses…A Habitat mortgage includes only the cost of materials to families are able to pay taxes and contribute to the long-term stability of the community.”
Habitat for Humanity has successfully completed and transferred ownership to families of 12 homes in Ulster County and broke ground on a 13th in May.
How did the soon to be named John LaValle ReStore come about?
LaValle talked about how he used to drive his mother down to visit relatives in Florida each winter, and how he and his wife got to stopping in on Habitat projects en route.
“In the early 2000s we were in southeast Volusia County, in Florida, and saw that Habitat had bought an old restaurant there and we couldn’t imagine why, or what use they could find for it,” he went on. “It turns out they were making a ReStore, a place to sell furniture and other items as fundraising for their building efforts, and the people behind it were very patient with me as I asked all sorts of questions.”
Simply put, “the ReStore is a discount home and thrift center that sells donated materials at reduced prices to the general public. 100% of the local profits support Ulster County Habitat for Humanity and help build homes and hope right here in Ulster County.”
The ReStore keeps “usable building materials, home improvement products and appliances out of local landfills, saving valuable resources…” It also provides “new and gently used home improvement materials, appliances, and furniture at affordable prices to everyone.”
Each time the LaValles then passed through areas where they knew there was Habitat activity — in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Alabama — they’d check out the new ReStores popping up.
“They were all quite a bit different from each other,” he recalls. “I figured it all came down to bringing together an idea that would work in Ulster County…and originally, my fellow board of directors thought I was crazy!”
By then, though, LaValle had already served a term as head of the Habitat board. In 2009, then, things came together when his wife was reading the local papers and saw that Weidy’s was looking to donate their building on 28.
“We approached them, We were selected,” LaValle recalls of the ensuing efforts. “Then the task began…the building, it turns out, needed a tremendous amount of work — two years worth with no money and lots of sweat — so we could finally get it to a stage where we could get a mortgage on it.”
Part of the effort, he adds, went into ensuring the place was as energy efficient as they could get it…which has resulted in cheaper monthly costs than originally anticipated.
Finally, in September 2013 — during LaValle’s second stint as board president and chairman — the place opened. And soon became successful enough to stabilize Habitat’s fundraising in a time of diminishing grants, as well as allow the organization to shift back to its original mission building and renovating homes for affordability.
These past months, LaValle adds, have been good, with the organization closing on a home on Henry Street in Kingston, breaking ground on another on East Chester in the city, and still another series of lots being discussed for possible town homes close to a Kingston school.
So why is LaValle stepping back?
“We rewrote our bylaws,” he said. “It’s time to rotate positions and now that my daughter-in-law Christine is our new executive director, I should not be on the executive board any more.”
Although he will stay on the general board, and give all he can, as always, to this entity that’s driven his life for 17 years now.
Taking over at Habitat’s helm will be Kevin McLaren, Executive Vice President at Catskill Hudson Bank.
“I assume the position on July 1,” McLaren said this week. “I was at a fundraiser in High Falls last week and one of the glories of the afternoon was when a woman who we built one of our first homes for down in Ellenville, back when she was a single mom of two, introduced her son, a new honors graduate from Columbia University.”
Asked how he felt about having the ReStore building named for him, LaValle replied how humbled he felt, and how totally unexpected the move was.
“I probably would have spoken against it if I’d known,” he adds. “It’s one thing to name a construction room after John and Emma Kauffman, volunteers for us who died in a traffic accident several years ago. But this seems to run counter to all I’ve learned at Habitat, about how important it is to care about what you’re doing rather than about yourself.”
McLaren puts it in perspective. “We wouldn’t be here where we are today without John. In addition to starting a business with ReStore, his vision of where Habitat could be in Ulster County set the stage for all we are now,” adds McLaren. “Now we have to step up and deliver.”
LaValle adds, “Affordable housing is so important here, where so many end up having to spend 40, 50, 55 percent of their incomes to pay the rent. I’m staying with it…and hoping that one day, this town of Woodstock where I’ve lived for 50 years could accommodate one of our projects.”
The key, both he and McLaren add, is not only volunteers, and funds, but those willing to become partners with Habitat buying homes with no interest, but a deep sense of sweat equity commitment and responsibility.
“It’s a process that has big ripples,” said LaValle, again noting his continuing commitment to the organization he’s led so well.
“This is important work,” joins in his successor, Kevin McLaren.
For more on Habitat Ulster, and the soon to be named John LaValle ReStore on Route 28 in Kingston, call 845-340-0907 or 845-853-7499, or see www.ulsterhabitat.org.