DRYDEN, N.Y. — It’s been a mixed bag for the Tompkins-Cortland Habitat for Humanity. The non-profit completed its first project in the City of Ithaca last fall with a duplex on the 200 Block of Third Street, but plans for a row of four townhomes fell through due to rising costs and legal red tape.

Now TCHFH is pursuing another project, this one in more familiar territory at 1932 Slaterville Road in Dryden. However, it comes with one big twist. Instead of building new, the project seeks to rehab a worn-out 1860s farmhouse, the first “gut” renovation TCHFH has ever performed. The roughly three-acre lot the old house sits on will be subdivided into three approximately one-acre lots, one for the original house, and the other two will each host a more typical TCHFH single-family ranch home.

“We spent much of 2018 looking for an ideal place to build and struggled to find an affordable space in a desirable location,” said Shannon MacCarrick, Executive Director for TCHFH. “There’s demand for affordable housing in and close to the City of Ithaca, but it’s tough to find vacant property.  Even houses that need thorough rehabilitation get scooped up pretty quickly. 1932 Slaterville was enticing for us because it’s fairly close to downtown, within ICSD, and the lot is large enough to accommodate multiple homes. Thus, we were getting more bang for our buck because it was like purchasing three lots, instead of just one.”

Now, as anyone who’s owned or restored an old home knows, bringing an old house up to date and up to code is no easy endeavor. There’s always a laundry list of tasks — the house may contain hazardous materials like asbestos, there may be old utility fittings that prove a challenge to take out or don’t seem to make sense where they are, and little issues may spiral out into bigger repairs. But for TCHFH, the “labor of love” volunteer component is a major benefit here; not just to keep labor costs down, but it also gives those who care about old houses a chance to deliver the love and attention they think those venerable old homesteads deserve.

“It’s exciting for us to salvage, if you will, a home that needs a lot of attention and care but otherwise has ‘good bones’ and the potential to be a really lovely, cozy, decent sized house for a family. I think it’s a refreshing change of pace for some of our veteran volunteers to tackle something new. New construction, in some ways, is fairly easy. Rehab work presents a whole new set of challenges and requires some different skills. There’s never a dull moment!  It also creates a nice volunteer opportunity for community members who might own an older home and want to tackle some renovations or repairs. They can get their feet wet volunteering with us, and learning some tricks of the trade, and then apply those skills when working on their own house.,” said MacCarrick.

Already, the project has thrown the organization some curveballs, though the first big one was from the bureaucratic side. Though the Planning Board supported the proposal, the Town of Dryden’s Zoning Board of Appeals rejected the initial subdivision request back in January. The variance was needed for a flag lot because with the land acquisition and renovation costs, the project only penned out financially when subdivided into three lots. A couple of months later, TCHFH decided to give it one more try with three conventional rectangular lots, two of which were deficient on road frontage (local law requires 150 feet; the lots on Slaterville Road are 151 feet, 106 feet and 100 feet). That plan was approved in early April.

“Admittedly, we were caught off guard by the initial rejection. Looking back on it, though, it was a blessing in disguise. It allowed us to take a closer look at our plans for utilizing the site and we came up with a site plan that we feel works a lot better than our first proposal. It did set us back on our spring construction plans, and we had to come up with some creative alternatives on short notice, which was stressful. That said, we’re used to some bumps in the road. And, I think the ZBA was doing their job and also holding us to a high standard, which I can appreciate,” said MacCarrick.

Deconstruction (stripping the interior and exterior siding) is currently underway, which will be followed by gutting the basement. The house will be lifted on its foundation to help make the farmhouse level, and then the team will begin refitting the interior.

When complete, the farmhouse will be an owner-occupied four-bedroom home for a lower-income family. Habitat homes are typically sold to families making under 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), or about $36,000/year. The homes are built with a combination of professional contractors and volunteer labor, including 350 hours of “sweat equity,” where the selected future homeowners actively work as members of the volunteer construction crew, as well as taking a homebuyer education course, financial training, and completing other tasks to help them become knowledgeable, self-sufficient homeowners.

Image courtesy of Tompkins-Cortland Habitat for Humanity.

MacCarrick said the homebuyer selection process is well underway.

“We’ve completed an initial call for applications and have whittled down that pool to a few qualified families. We’re currently in the process of doing home visits and interviews with those applicants … (o)ur goal is to select homebuyers as early in the build process as possible. This gives them more time to save for closing costs, complete their Sweat Equity hours, get to know our volunteers, etc. We hope to approve a couple, if not three, qualified families later this month.  We will potentially have another open application period this summer. Our next application period would be to identify the third homebuyer for this project, if need be, and to also identify some alternate candidates, in the event that someone changes their mind or identifies another housing solution and no longer needs our program,” MacCarrick said.

The other two homes will be new three-bedroom units of about 1,100 square feet each. Given the “labor of love” aspect and donated materials from local building suppliers, they will still cost about $70,000-$75,000 each, on top of the farmhouse renovation. Habitat raises funds and applied for grants to help cover these expenses – for example, this project will receive $40,000 from the joint city/county/Cornell Community Housing Development Fund (CHDF). The plan is to have one and perhaps two homes complete by spring 2020, and the third home finished by summer or fall 2020.

Now, there might be a few eye rolls at this piece. It’s a thousand words about three single-family houses. But these are homes that, even if a drop in the bucket in the area’s affordable housing deficit, will mean the world to the families that will own them and call them home. In a market starved for affordable housing and especially owner-occupied affordable housing, every little bit helps.

MacCarrick said she is looking forward to the day these homes welcome their new owners.

“This Slaterville Road build is honestly our biggest construction project yet,” MacCarrick said. “We’ve never tackled three homes at once. It may sound small to a developer or large construction company, but, for an organization with just a few staff people, that largely builds with volunteers, it’s a pretty big deal. We’re proud to be growing, and I think this project shows that we’re trying to expand our reach with rehab, and meet the demand for affordable housing in and near Ithaca.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.