When Habitat for Humanity comes up, the image that probably pops into a lot of people's minds is that of a volunteer org getting together on weekends and building small houses, one at a time.
But, as we've mentioned before, Habitat for Humanity Capital District has been working in recent years as something more like a neighborhood developer, doing large-scale projects such as the ongoing redevelopment in Sheridan Hollow.
Now Habitat for Humanity Capital District is evolving again, this time working to renovate blighted buildings in the city of Albany back into owner-occupied homes.
What's going on
Habitat for Humanity Capital District -- which serves Albany, Rensselaer, and southern Saratoga counties -- is currently working on three rehab projects in Albany: 309 Clinton Ave, 100 Lark Street, and 102 Lark Street. These projects are in addition to the ongoing new construction project in nearby Sheridan Hollow, where the first homes in the project's second phase were recently completed.
This trio of rehabs isn't the first time Habitat has taken on such a project. It completed a rehab of 126 Lark Street in 2015. But Christine Schudde, Habitat's executive director, said they're now looking to expand the number of rehabs they do as part of the org's overall strategy to comprehensively address neighborhoods.
"So, as we're looking at how we can have the greatest impact, we do still look at new construction and that can be really transformative going forward," Schudde said during a tour of the Clinton Ave home in December, "but we want to make sure we're looking at the buildings that already exist."
The expansion of this focus also matches up with the efforts of the relatively new Albany County Land Bank, which has been working with Habitat to identify and help fund properties such as 309 Clinton.
It's a different challenge
Habitat builds houses, so it has a lot of construction experience. But rehabbing buildings that are more than a century old presents its own sets of challenges.
As Fred Darguste, Habitat for Humanity Capital District's director of construction, explained while we toured the Clinton Ave home in December, there's a lot of uncertainty about what exactly might need to be done -- and how that will affect the cost.
"Because when you walk into a building there's just so much that you can see with the walls up," Darguste said. "And when you start taking down the walls, the structural issues always bring additional costs that you didn't factor in -- regardless of how much a contingency you put in there."
But Darguste said they go in expecting that they're going to find some things that are unexpected, and Habitat relies on its team of project managers to forecast potential problems so they're not too much of a surprise.
Another issue involved with rehabbing old buildings is navigating some of the requirements related to historic preservation. One example: Replacing wood windows that have suffered from decades of neglect with their modern equivalents can be expensive, and in the case of a Habitat project, doing so would probably be outside the budget.
"We do want to maintain the integrity of the building and the history of the neighborhood," said Christine Schudde. "But rehabs are already really expensive, so for us to be able to rehab a building and to keep it affordable, to have that sales price be something that a family of lower income can afford -- there has to be a balance between the historic goals and leaving a building vacant, which we don't want to do."
So Habitat has worked with the city's Historic Resource Commission to get approval for the use of aluminum-clad windows that are about half the price of wood-framed windows.
"As a result, we're able to save money, use more durable windows, and at the same time maintain the integrity of the historic area, so it works out really well," Fred Darguste said.
Colleen Ryan, the chair of the city's Historic Resources Commission, said she recalled the HRC approving the use of aluminum-clad windows in a half-dozen cases over the past year, and the commission frequently gives them the OK in cases where the original windows had been removed years ago.
Making the numbers the work
The windows are just one example of how Habitat works every part of the cost equation to make the rehab projects fit a very tight budget.
Fred Darguste said Habitat's budget for the complete gut remodel of the 2,700 square foot, 4 bedroom, 2.5 bath row home on Clinton Ave is $140,000 -- which works out to a little more than $50 per square foot. They're able to get the price down that far by working with vendors who are longtime supporters, getting discounts from manufacturers, and of course, help from volunteers.
"Everyone contributes to keeping that cost low," said Darguste.
Even so, that $140k cost is above the $125,000 price at which Habitat will be selling the home to its new owners. (The family is going through the usual Habitat buying process, which includes 250 hours of sweat equity as well as financial education.) Habitat will be covering the gap with funding from the Albany County Land Bank, as well as its usual assortment of funders.
And that highlights the reality for many vacant buildings in neighborhoods around the Capital District -- the price the market will support for them is below what it would cost to renovate them. So having Habitat apply its model to renovating the buildings is a way to unstick them from this upside-down financial state.
Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and other spots around the area have a lot of buildings -- hundreds of them -- like this one on Clinton Ave. So what is Habitat capable of -- how many buildings could it do?
Fred Darguste figures Habitat for Humanity Capital District could currently handle 6-10 rehabs per year. But they'd have to be the right buildings, in the right places.
"For us, density is key. It allows us to leverage our team as best as possible," he explained, noting the logistics of managing materials and volunteers are much easier when buildings are located near each other.
And Christine Schudde said that approach loops back into Habitat's current aim to help blocks or whole sections of neighborhoods change their fortunes.
"I think it's important to remember that, even if we could, we wouldn't want to be the only entity that's rehabbing buildings," she said. "We want to be the spark that maybe helps build the neighborhood market, that makes it possible for other investors to come in and build market rate, or keep building affordable housing, to have a mix of products and a mix of purchasers. ... We want to encourage other people to come on board and realize the neighborhood can handle this investment, it's worthy of this investment, and that there's a good future here in Arbor Hill, and Sheridan Hollow, the South End and wherever we're building."
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