By Mary B. O’Neill, Ph.D. | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s no mystery that people are attracted to this area for its simplicity and beauty. The desire to live here on a full or part-time basis is driven by the quality of life we believe we can achieve.
An unfortunate side effect of this – particularly if you’re a first-time buyer – is increased home prices. When demand increases and supply decreases, prices go up. This basic economic relationship is being played out all over Columbia County, NY. And bearing the brunt of it are local workers and full-time residents trying to make a living.
These same full-time residents are also the ones charged with maintaining and preserving the beloved rural character of our communities. When they can’t find affordable quality housing for themselves and their families, they need to go elsewhere. This depletes the area of critical human capital.
While Columbia County is long on natural beauty and diversity it’s becoming increasingly short on the diversity of the people who live and work here. As any environmentalist will tell you, diversity is key to a healthy and thriving ecosystem. Without it, a system can’t flourish and survive adversity.
A partner in community
For over 23 years Columbia County Habitat for Humanity has been working to maintain a healthy and diverse economic ecosystem by providing affordable housing to those residents needing a leg up on the property ladder. The stability that home ownership can bring allows them to build thriving lives in the communities where they work.
Executive Director Brenda Adams has guided the organization through the last seven years and witnesses the challenges that residents of rural communities often face in finding housing that is reasonably priced, safe, and predictable. This lack of housing is “harder to see in a rural area but the need is definitely there,” Adams asserts.
During her tenure, the number of individuals applying for Habitat housing has quadrupled. It has increased from roughly 10 applicants per application cycle to over 55 applicants for two homes in the most recent cycle.
The most basic requirement is an income level that is 20 to 60 percent of the Annual Median Income. Last year in Columbia County that equated to a maximum income level of $42,000 for a family of four. The family must also contribute a minimum of 300 labor hours toward the construction of their own home, take a HUD-certified first-time homebuyers course, and currently live in substandard rental housing.
Community health through housing
“We need to attract young people and families to our communities, and make it possible for them to live here. When they do, their children go to the local school, they can work closer to their homes, and they can volunteer in the communities they live in,” explains Adams.
Adams credits the growth of Habitat to its energetic and devoted board and team of volunteers. Because of their work, Habitat has been successful in building partnerships on all levels. This reinforces an increased understanding that Habitat forges a relationship between the partner family, the organization, and the wider community.
That spirit of partnership carries on after the last nail is hammered and the keys are handed over. Adams describes that “new Habitat homeowners become knit into the community and develop skills and relationships from helping build their own home with local volunteers. While volunteering in the communities that Habitat families live in isn’t a requirement, I’ve noticed that many of our families give back, either through volunteering for Habitat themselves on projects or in our ReStore resale shop, coaching little league, volunteering in the fire department, or hosting a foreign exchange student.”
Yet even with the hand up provided by Habitat over the years, Adams and the board are aware that new homeowners are still in a tenuous situation regarding housing expenses such as heating. With very modest salaries that often don’t rise in proportion to the increase in fuel costs incurred during harsh winter months, Habitat homeowners can find themselves having to make difficult choices between heat and other necessities.
A match made in Hudson
Seeking a solution, in 2011 Adams contacted Manhattan- and Hudson-based architect Dennis Wedlick of BarlisWedlick Architects to speak at a fundraising event. The topic: his work with sustainable Passive Houses that are fiercely energy efficient. (See related article on Passive House design on page 30).
Wedlick studied under post-modern architect Philip Johnson (who designed the Museum of Modern Art) and cut his chops designing skyscrapers. In Wedlick’s early career in the 1980s he found his way to designing high-end sustainable residential housing, yet moonlighted designing affordable housing developments in Columbia County.
In 2010, he spearheaded the Hudson Passive Project. Designed and built in partnership with builder Bill Stratton and Company, it was a watershed moment for him. That soaring, yet deeply energy efficient dwelling, won the project many accolades.
Not only was it architecturally stunning, it was a test case for how a house could be built to reduce its energy footprint. Wedlick worked with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority as part of its High Performance Challenge to document and prove the energy savings. It has now become a standard bearer for what is possible in sustainable, low-energy housing.
This was the work Habitat wanted to hear about, and at that presentation a beautiful partnership was born. Wedlick describes on the dynamic energy created by a room full of “building enthusiasts who completely understood the technical aspects of my presentation. I couldn’t go fast enough. I’d present a theory, and they’d say, ‘We get that, what’s next?’”
Then Wedlick got Passive aggressive. Adams remembers, “Dennis presented us with a challenge – use his know-how in Passive House design and apply it to Habitat housing.” Wedlick convinced Habitat that he could adapt his Passive House design principles to their budget, which included vinyl siding and materials from Home Depot.
“With the enthusiasm of Dennis and Habitat volunteers,” recollects Adams, “we began our first set of Passive Houses 10 months later. We monitored the savings, which were real and substantial. These houses cost 90 percent less to heat, leaving families with more money for a financial safety net. We’re now building our third set of houses with Dennis and BarlisWedlick in Valatie, New York.”
For BarlisWedlick, their Passive House work with Habitat has been “the single largest volunteer effort my firm has made over six years and with a staff of four architects,” recounts Wedlick. “My partner Alan Barlis and I are dedicated to improving the quality of life of our rural neighbors. Our working relationship has allowed me to focus on developing strategies that make Passive House technologies available for the rural workforce.”
Ancram Rural Build project
As part of their 15-month strategic plan, the Habitat board is expanding the organization’s capacity and fully embracing its vision of partnering with communities in all parts of the county. Habitat’s goal is to build 12 more homes over the next five years, all of which will be Passive House design. An important pillar of that plan is the Ancram Rural Build, which is the product of a “convergence” as Wedlick calls it.
Wedlick is a rare combination of data junkie, empath, and lofty idealist. He brings number-crunching support, his ability to identify with the plight of others, and a vision of providing opportunities for homeownership, to a critical cross section of Columbia County – the agricultural community.
For Wedlick, Habitat is uniquely positioned as a lead partner in this endeavor. “Habitat taught me about building community by building for community – building for our neighbors. It reflects the notion of a traditional barn build – everyone pitching in, doing what they do best. I know how to design, but Habitat volunteers know how to build.”
Habitat was ready to swing the hammer, and Wedlick had created the design – they just needed the site. In line with Wedlick’s idea of convergence came the involvement of Frank and Katherine Martucci, longtime Columbia County residents, philanthropists, and landowners.
In conversation one day about how best to conserve the area’s rural character, while bolstering the community that works and tends to the land, Wedlick and Frank Martucci shared concerns about who would steward the land and keep the fabric of community intact. They both recognize the economic constraints of the area in terms of rising costs of living and stagnant wages. Both believe in the strength of a vibrant and diverse community. Having a situation where young artisans, farmers, and tradespeople can’t afford to live is not a path to a sustainable economic and environmental future for Columbia County.
Wedlick kindly gave the Martuccis a vehicle to address their concerns. They could donate land in central Ancramdale and be partners with Habitat and himself in the Ancram Rural Build. The Martuccis, along with Dan Slott with whom they co-owned the land, were impressed with Habitat’s model and rigorous selection process. They have since donated the land, and the third piece of the puzzle is now in place.
Adams describes the Martuccis as “visionary individuals who are concerned with a healthy, sustainable, and diverse community in the long term.” This perspective dovetails so well with Habitat’s own. For Adams, “Effective community planning, the kind Habitat is dedicated to, requires a long view and a commitment to a vision of inclusive community life. We’re so fortunate that Frank and Katherine share that philosophy.”
Documenting the need
One of the key aspects of the Habitat model is assessing the demand for its housing before a shovel strikes dirt. It doesn’t build spec houses and hope to find an owner. Habitat must document the need before the project will move ahead. Wedlick, ever one for a firm foundation, took to building the case for the project.
He accessed information from the New York State Department of Labor that details occupations, requisite education and skill levels, and pay scales based upon experience divided into tertiles. Using his vast experience building residences in rural Columbia County, he personally highlighted every occupation that is remotely related to the agricultural sector, from food worker to farm bookkeeper to farmer.
He then determined that the median salary across all occupations in the first tertile, where a first-time homeowner might be, was $27,000 per year. Based upon this and Habitat’s own research on the issue, he saw that one-third of Columbia County earns about 50 percent of the state average. His conclusion: the housing need is there for the agricultural worker in demographic that Habitat serves.
Putting faces to numbers
These statistics must now become real faces. Habitat needs to know that there are actual families who meet its criteria and are willing to become partners in home building and ownership. Habitat is holding a community meeting to share information about the Habitat Ancram Rural Build so that prospective applicants can understand requirements for qualification, the application process, and what happens after one is selected.
Wedlick and Adams emphasize that the Ancram Rural Build targets those occupations that are required to sustain our agricultural economy, such as farm workers, and those careers that sustain the agricultural infrastructure, such as barn builders, tractor drivers, carpenters, surveyors, landscapers, and food science technicians – their definition of rural workforce is quite expansive. Finding potential partner families that meet the criteria is the critical next step in making this project a reality. From their research, they know these families are out there – the more families to come forward, the more they will build. •
The Ancram Rural Build community meeting will be on February 12th at 1pm at the Ancram Volunteer Firehouse. It is open to any resident of Columbia County who is interested in becoming a partner family in the Ancram Rural Build. The firehouse is located at 1306 County Route 7 in Ancram. Questions? Not sure if what you do for a living meets Rural Build requirements? Contact Brenda Adams at email@example.com – she’ll help you figure it out.
For more information about Columbia County Habitat, go to www.columbiacountyhabitat.org. The office and ReStore shop are located at 829 Route 66, Hudson, NY. Phone number: (518) 828-0892.