It took Kimberlee Girolamo almost four years to get to the point where she can move her three daughters and cat into their "forever" home.
It took Habitat For Humanity of Dutchess County four hours to construct Girolamo's house on a quiet street in the Village of Wappingers Falls.
The house is one of two modular homes the nonprofit is building on Paggi Terrace, a street lined with multi-family and single-family houses packed closely together. The house, which has two floors, four bedrooms and two bathrooms arrived pre-built and is put together on site.
It's the first time the local Habitat chapter has built a house in such a way. The decision to do so came out of the pandemic, as the cost of building was rising. Building modular homes will help get more families into homes faster, the organization hopes.
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After having to move four times and living in unsafe conditions, Girolamo's girls are now picking out their own furniture and deciding on what color to paint their individual bedrooms. The oldest, Narissa Walker, has been collecting items for a "The Nightmare Before Christmas"-themed room since she found out they'd be moving into a home. Her sister, Madison Victor, is looking forward to showing her friends.
"I can actually have my friends over, my own bedroom, my own private space," said Madison Victor.
Girolamo, a single parent who was raised by her father, grew up in a house where she was able to play outside and have barbeques in the backyard. But she's most recently been raising her family in a two-bedroom apartment in the village which she describes as "unsafe." Its windows panes, which do little to keep out the cold, easily fall out and at times a noxious smell causes lightheadedness and bloody noses.
"My dad raised us, as a single parent in a (house), and I just wanted to give my daughters the same thing that I had, and not to have to keep moving around, and to give my kids a stable world," said Girolamo, who works as a home care worker, sometimes taking on 12-hours shifts when needed.
Since 1986, Habitat for Humanity has built 35 houses in Dutchess County as it attempts to get low-income families out of rentals and into homes. The nonprofit has four active builds and will be opening its application process again in August.
Homeownership is believed to help break a cycle of generational poverty and help families build wealth. Families pay a reduced amount for the house to make it affordable, but they also put in hours of volunteer construction work on site and at the nonprofit's Habitat Dutchess ReStore, where donated items are sold to raise funds for housing projects.
"(Volunteering) helps (my daughters) understand why mommy works so long, why mommy is going through the process so they can have a forever home," she said. "When they go into the ReStore, they see the impact that Habitat has."
Most of the funding for Girolamo's house came from the ReStore, which is another first for the organization. Grant money was used to fill in the gaps. The organization hopes its ReStore will create a sustainable channel of funding for their housing projects.
Habitat for Humanity will be holding a dedication for the house on Friday and the family will be moving in the next couple of weeks.
The organization's most recent efforts come amid a housing crisis in Dutchess that predated, but was exacerbated by, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Property values in recent years have skyrocketed, due in part to people moving up to the Hudson Valley from New York City and other areas in search of open spaces, shutting out many moderate and low-income families from the housing market.
According to a housing assessment report released earlier this year, Dutchess County's housing stock is mismatched with the needs of its residents. Though there should be a surplus of rental and ownership properties affordable to households making between $35,000 and $74,999 per year, in relation to the number of those households in the county, a dearth of higher-end properties available has flooded that housing market with wealthy homeseekers. With higher budgets and often higher credit scores, they've been able to win competitions for those properties, holding many families back from being able to make the leap from renter to homeowner.
The median selling price for a single family detached house in Dutchess increased 9.2% in June from the same time last year, according to Mid-Hudson Multiple Listing Service. The number of closed sales in the county has dropped 22.4% as compared to last year.
Habitat for Humanity keeps the cost of buying one of its homes under 29% of the homeowner's gross income.The difficulty is in finding available and affordable properties to build on, especially outside of the City of Poughkeepsie which holds much of the low-income and affordable housing in the county.
Municipalities such as the Town of Poughkeepsie have incorporated the need to identify properties for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity into their comprehensive plans, though progress is slow because properties that are available need to be rezoned for housing.
"The challenge to find properties continues. Even properties requiring significant site work are way over any price we might be able to pay. Donations have all but dried up," said Maureen Lashlee, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Dutchess County.
Girolamo first heard about Habitat for Humanity in 2019, when the program was mentioned to her by former Wappingers Falls Mayor Matt Alexander. She had taken part in the first-time homebuyers program through Pathstone, a year before. Pathstone provides community development and human resources such as employment, health, educational and financial services. Pathstone also administers the Section 8 federal assistance program for those in need of housing.
Buying a house for a single parent or a single individual will become increasingly more challenging, if not impossible, over time as housing prices continue to rise. Single individuals make up close to half the county's population, this includes the elderly.
"Single parents remain economically vulnerable as incomes stagnate, prospects for affordable homeownership dwindle, and rent-to-income ratios worsen," according to the county's housing assessment report.
Girolamo had to first work on her improving her credit score after applying to Habitat for Humanity. As a single mother, she was supporting her household on an income of about $30,000. Girolamo also had to save enough money to put down a payment for the house and to collect enough sweat equity hours, time spent volunteering for the non-profit. She has worked on six Habitat houses, including her own, and plans to continue volunteering.
On average, the organization's program can take up to two years, though some families need more time. The process for Girolamo's house took longer because of the pandemic. Construction activity was limited because of the state-imposed restrictions. Though the slow down was discouraging, she focused her energy into volunteering.
"Kim has completed over 400 sweat equity hours. She's helped us build multiple habitat houses while she's been in our program, as well as her own," said Jessica Miuccio, development director for Habitat for Humanity of Dutchess County.
The reason Habitat for Humanity decided to build its first modular home was because the process was quicker allowing for the organization to be in a "continuous state of building." While it takes only four hours to put the house together on the lot, volunteers can work on exterior and interior tasks such as sheetrocking, painting and porch construction.
"Every plot of land, every house design, the architectural plans will determine if modular is possible or whether it needs to be a stick build," said Miuccio. "But because of the success with the modulars, the fact that our volunteers are still making a house a home, seems to be a bright future for this way of building."
Saba Ali: Sali1@poughkeepsiejournal.com: 845-451-4518: @MsSabaAli.