Home improvement’s got me a little overexcited lately.
Earlier this week, I finally made it to the ReStore in Albany, which I’ve been meaning to check out for years. There’s always something good in a ReStore. This time, it was a dozen pristine Kohler toilets in their original packaging. Jackpot: I’m in the middle of a bathroom renovation.
I peeked into one of the packages. I thought of all the terrible bathrooms in all the sketchy living situations I’ve ever gotten myself into. Something in that pure, white, unsullied bowl spoke to me. I got a bit emotional.
“Nobody has ever pooped in that toilet!” I yelled to the ReStore guy, a little too loud, probably.
“Yeah,” he said. He must get this all the time. “We don’t take toilets that have been pooped in.”
As thrilled as I was to have my very own undefiled bathroom fixture, for the grand sum of $40, it’s a pale shadow of the joy of owning your own brand-new house for the first time. It’s nice to imagine that $40 helping to make that possible for some local family.
Like other ReStore outlets — more than 900 of them across the nation — the ReStore in Albany supports its local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Here in the Catskills, the Ulster County chapter of Habitat operates a ReStore on Route 28 just outside Kingston. The stores sell furniture and building supplies at a deep discount, and use the proceeds to fund local home-building projects.
Ulster County Habitat for Humanity is currently at work building its sixteenth house. In my own Delaware County, the local chapter has built eight. It’s slow work, one house at a time, but every house built is a family that’s no longer struggling to make rent.
Habitat for Humanity doesn’t give away houses: They just put them within reach. New homeowners in the local Habitat program put in a down payment of 300 hours of “sweat equity” on the construction site of their home and in the ReStore, and get a mortgage from a lender. In areas like ours, where building costs are high, there’s often a gap between the cost of building a new home and what the homeowner can afford to borrow; the chapter will fundraise to cover the difference.
To get help from a Habitat for Humanity, a household needs to be making less than 60 percent of local median income; in Ulster County, that’s about $48,000 for a family of four. Habitat seeks to help families that are living in unsafe or overcrowded housing, or paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
That’s a description that fits a shockingly large slice of the local population. According to Census data, reported in the 2012-2016 American Community Survey, more than half of the renters in Ulster County were considered “housing cost burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Almost a third of renters in the county were spending at least half of their income on rent. In the last few years, a surging real estate market in Kingston, and the general trend of turning rental properties into Airbnb getaways, have probably only exacerbated those numbers.
A few weeks ago, the director of Ulster County Habitat for Humanity, Christine Brady LaValle, went on Radio Kingston with host Hillary Harvey to talk about Habitat’s local work and the need for more affordable housing in the region. Housing is a tough nut to crack, LaValle said, and the local market isn’t helping.
Building one house at a time won’t solve the local housing crisis by itself. It won’t stop the white-hot real estate market from pricing people out of Kingston. But for the families Habitat helps, it’s a lifeline.
“One of the ways housing is described is as a vaccine. It improves educational outcomes, it improves health outcomes,” LaValle said.
Homeownership isn’t for everyone. At the bottom of the income ladder, below about 40 percent of median household income, the math just doesn’t work out for a mortgage, even a subsidized one. But LaValle says that making homeownership possible for more families helps renters too. “Every time someone moves out of rental housing and into homeownership, there’s another place in rental housing that opens up for somebody else.”
Ulster County Habitat for Humanity has an open call for volunteers to help out at their home construction sites or in the ReStore. They also accept donations of furniture and building materials, which may be tax-deductible for donors. To find out more, visit them online at ulsterhabitat.org, or call them at 845-340-0907.