The lack of affordable housing in the mid-Hudson region is much on our minds these days, as better-paid refugees from New York City flee north and gobble up real estate that seems comparatively inexpensive from their perspective. Handwringing over the subject always seems to devolve into despair, as no one can come up with incentives that will motivate builders to build housing that isn’t as costly as the high end of the market will bear. This has become doubly true since the supply-line difficulties of the pandemic economy have driven up the prices of construction materials by as much as 35 percent.
As a result, the brunt of the responsibility for creating workforce housing – or at least to chip away at the edges of this immense problem – falls on not-for-profits subsidized by government grant funding. RUPCO is much in the news, and we applaud that organization’s ongoing efforts to turn derelict properties into affordable rentals for artists, the poor and the elderly. But there’s another program that has labored in Ulster County, mainly the City of Kingston, with far less fanfare for going on three decades now. It’s called Ulster YouthBuild, and it’s high time for this amazing organization to emerge from the shadows into the spotlight and take a bow.
“We’re so busy doing the work that we don’t have time to give ourselves for outreach,” says Bonnie Landi, a Kingston native who founded Ulster YouthBuild in 1994 and remains its executive director. The day Hudson Valley One reached her, in fact, Landi was putting the finishing touches on a “very complex” New York State grant application due that very afternoon. She has established an enviable track record in getting the local organization funded to the tune of about a million dollars every three years. The funding comes down from the federal Department of Labor, with more than 250 YouthBuild programs in 44 states plus Puerto Rico having to compete for about 80 total grants awarded per year.
The program originated in East Harlem, founded in 1978 by a teacher named Dorothy Stoneman, and gradually spread across the country and the globe. Today there are YouthBuild organizations in Canada, Mexico, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica and Brazil. All share the same mission: to empower disadvantaged youth aged 17 to 24 to complete their educations and acquire marketable skills in the building trades. Students in the “holistic, comprehensive” program stay for one to two years, getting intensive hands-on training at construction sites, either renovating or building from scratch. Upon completion, the houses are sold at below-market-rate prices to low-income first-time homebuyers.
In Kingston, says Landi, the houses the young trainees rebuild were “either vacant or not collecting taxes. Now they’ve gone back onto the City tax rolls, so there’s a lot of win/win.” Purchasers must sign a restrictive covenant preventing them from “flipping” the house until after five years of occupancy, and only one in Ulster YouthBuild’s 27-year history has ever been resold. She recalls the purchasers of the program’s very first completed project, a family with four children, being able to relocate from a small two-bedroom apartment into a four-bedroom house. “They still own the house,” she says with satisfaction.
Those who live nearby benefit as well: “Homeownership in a neighborhood increases the revitalization of the neighborhood.” One of the organization’s biggest undertakings was the acquisition of an entire block of six houses in Kingston, on Prospect Street between Henry and Van Buren. Four of them were renovated, but two were in such bad shape that they had to be dismantled and two new houses built from scratch where they had stood. “They literally took down one house just so the kids could see how houses were built in the ‘40s. Back then there were no zoning requirements or building requirements. Then they learned how you have to do them today.”
Program participants spend about 15 hours in classroom settings and 15 on the job site each week, according to Landi. They learn best practices in building – these days including not only construction engineering, tool use and care and how to handle materials safely, but also “green building” techniques for energy conservation and sustainability. “This house you could heat with a candle,” proudly declares Robert DePace, head builder trainer at YouthBuild’s current project: an energy-efficient, two-story, three-bedroom house newly built on Sycamore Street in the Ponckhockie neighborhood. A Marlboro native who spent years in a construction battalion in the US Navy and went on to own a construction business, DePace has nothing but praise for the YouthBuild model. “This job is fun and interesting because of the lives I get to touch every day,” he says. “The youth are a lot of fun to work with.”
Educational goals for program participants include completing a GED if they didn’t complete high school, as well as acquiring certification in a variety of technical skills and OSHA safety preparedness. “This program teaches it all: electric, plumbing, carpentry. We try to show job readiness,” says Amoni Moe-Wright, who spent one year as a student in the program before being hired by YouthBuild as construction crew leader for the Sycamore Street site.
When he discovered the program in 2020, Moe-Wright says, “I was just lost. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I tried college for two months, but it wasn’t for me. I would get in trouble here and there.” Involvement in YouthBuild has given him a new sense of purpose and growing confidence in his skills, which he’s now passing along to the next group of trainees. “I enjoy that these kids look up to me. They don’t see the growth that they could achieve. But here, you’re seeing your progress every day.”
YouthBuild graduates get another year of follow-up, case management and job placement services to help keep them on track to succeed. Many end up being hired by local manufacturing firms that have established partnerships with the program, including Fala Technologies, Elna Magnetics, Tower Products and Viking Packaging. “They’re committed to working with us,” says Landi.
On Sycamore Street, the house that these young people have been building from the ground up, year-round since the autumn of 2020, is nearing completion. Kitchen cabinets and appliances have just been delivered on the day that Hudson Valley One paid a visit, and the crew is getting ready to lay down hardwood flooring in the downstairs. The taping and sheetrocking – a job that many do-it-yourselfers find daunting job – looks remarkably professional. From the front porch, there’s an angled view of the Hudson River, and there’s a sizable private yard out back.
According to Landi, a purchaser has already been qualified, with the sale likely to close in the spring. But first there will be an Open House for the general public to celebrate another YouthBuild success story. Then it’ll be on to the next project: a rehab on Franklin Street. To follow YouthBuild Ulster’s progress or make a donation to support its work, visit https://ulsteryouthbuild.weebly.com or www.facebook.com/ulsteryouthbuild.