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December 21, 2012
ALBANY — To Lloyd Patterson, the neat two-story row house he was handed the keys to Wednesday represents more than just the first home his family has owned since immigrating from Guyana more than a decade ago.
For Patterson, those keys represented the opportunity for a tangible brick-and-mortar legacy — and a chance to show his two youngest children the value of his skill in the building trades.
“It’s a blessing that as a father I can be able to have an inheritance for my children — and grandchildren,” said Patterson, 52, who along with his wife, Luverne, works as a certified nursing assistant at the Albany County Nursing Home.
The Pattersons’ Alexander Street home was one of 10 dedicated Wednesday by Capital District Habitat for Humanity, the first wave of what was at its inception was the most ambitious redevelopment project in the nonprofit’s nearly 25-year history in the city.
Two more homes have been completed on nearby Delaware Street, with four more there expected to be finished next month.
In all, Morton’s Walk will total 16 new homes, most of them on a block of Alexander Street that five years ago unwittingly became a symbol of the blight scarring some of the city’s most needy neighborhoods.
The stretch of 10 row houses between Elizabeth and Clinton streets rose over the last 17 months on the site of a mass 2007 demolition that cost Rebecca and Richard Lawson their home of 30 years and became a rallying point for the city redouble its efforts to battle neighborhood decay.
The plan represented a fundamental change of course for Habitat, which at that point had built fewer than a handful homes a year in the city, focusing on “safe, simple, decent” in-fill housing without a larger blueprint.
“Without a vision, you perish,” Patterson said. “This neighborhood was perishing.”
Alexander Street is proof that the new blueprint can work, Mayor Jerry Jennings said.
“You know what we have here?” Jennings said. “We have a game plan that we can implement anywhere else in the city.”
Wednesday’s dedication comes as Habitat for Humanity is poised to embark on an even more ambitious plan to remake a large chunk of Sheridan Hollow, a largely forgotten neighborhood just below Arbor Hill.
Ground is expected to be broken on that project — the first phase of which includes 20 new one- and two-family homes, apartments and commercial space — in April.
“We asked for a lot of money and a lot of faith because we believed we could build something like this,” Capital District Habitat Executive Director Michael Jacobson, who joined the organization in fall 2010 after six years running a Florida affiliate, reflected Wednesday. “But we had to prove it.”
The project received nearly $1 million in low-income housing money from the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal as well as a nearly $200,000 boost from the city, officials said. At least five of the properties were acquired with the help of Albany County. Dozens of companies donated time, money and materials, including First Niagara bank, which Jacobson said floated a line of credit that helped get the project off the ground.
The homes cost roughly $100,000 each to build and were then sold to Habitat’s selected buyers at cost with no-interest mortgages held by the nonprofit, Jacobson said.
The city also used federal housing money to help the new homeowners make their down payments, said Michael Yevoli, the city’s commissioner of development and planning.
Overall, Jacobson pegged the cost of the project between $2.5 million and $2.6 million on top of the sweat equity of the new owners.
Instead of the utilitarian designs that marked Habitat projects in years’ past, the Morton’s Walk homes — named for the prominent South End family that still lives in the neighborhood and donated a number of the properties to make the project possible — were designed to closely match the South End’s 19th-century architecture.
“This is a beautiful thing,” said Morris Morton, who lives across Alexander Street and whose wife, JoAnn, is president of the South End Neighborhood Association. “It’s a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, a longtime representative of the neighborhood, said the health of any city can be judged by the condition of all of its neighborhoods, not just the well-off.
“Teddy Roosevelt once said many years ago that a city is not fit for anyone to live in unless it’s fit for everyone to live in,” McLaughlin noted.
LaTrenda Buchanon, 41, a state worker who was among the first to move into the new homes in March, learned her application had been accepted by Habitat while grocery shopping. It meant her family could move out of its cramped, expensive apartment complex and spread out in a place of its own for the first time, the mother of two said.
“I was in the frozen-food aisle and I’m getting ready to leave my cart and run out because I’m so ecstatic,” Buchanon recalled.
Shondell McAllister, the mother of Kathina Thomas, the 10-year-old girl slain by a stray bullet in West Hill four years ago, also received one of the homes.
And while the genesis of the project lay in decay, Jacobson stressed the new face of the neighborhood is durable, forward-looking and ready for outside investment.
“Real brick!” he shouted excitedly to the gathered crowd Wednesday while gesturing to the facades of the brand-new homes. “That’s not coming down.”
Throughout construction, Jacobson said, the true nature of the South End revealed itself to the scores of volunteers who helped the new owners build their homes:
“Not a stitch of graffiti, not a broken window, not a missing tool, not one call to police.”
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