First-Time Homebuyers Get Chance at Brooklyn Digs

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Habitat for Humanity is moving 105 families into their first homes throughout central Brooklyn. Under the terms of a $20 million federal grant to help improve communities with high foreclosure rates, the families need to be in contract on their homes by the end of the year.

First-time homebuyers attend an open house at a St. Marks Avenue condominium. (Michaelle Bond/The Brooklyn Ink)

First-time homebuyers attend an open house at a St. Marks Avenue condominium. (Michaelle Bond/The Brooklyn Ink)

A thermometer drawn in marker on a large sheet of white paper hangs on the wall of Habitat for Humanity’s New York City office in downtown Manhattan. But the thermometer doesn’t measure the temperature nor does it set a fundraising goal. It keeps track of how many families have enrolled in one of the organization’s first-time homebuyer programs.

Out of the more than 70 families in the “100 Homes in Brooklyn” initiative, 17 have closed on their homes and 22 more are in contract. The federal government gave Habitat’s local branch a $20 million grant in 2010 to build and refurbish homes in central Brooklyn through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which was established to help improve communities with high foreclosure and abandoned property rates. Funds came through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – the stimulus.

Under the terms of the grant, families in the program have to close on their homes by the end of the year, so Habitat is recruiting families to move into 105 energy efficient condominiums and cooperatives throughout central Brooklyn – five more than originally planned.

The program includes five previously vacant buildings in Bedford-Stuyvesant that the organization refurbished: three units on Bainbridge Street, six units on Halsey Street, six units on Marion Street, eight units on Jefferson Avenue and eight units on Monroe Street.

But Habitat is focusing now on filling up 26 two- or three-bedroom condominiums on St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights. The St. Marks condos, unlike the ones in Bed-Stuy, are brand new and boast hardwood floors and granite countertops. The building hosts open houses every Saturday until the end of March.

Yolanda Robles, 48, who rents in East New York, saw an ad for the Habitat program in the free daily paper amNewYork and came to an open house one recent Saturday in late February in hopes of taking part in it.

“We’ve been renting so long, it’s time to have a mortgage,” she said. “It’s pride, joy, peace in owning your own home.”

Her family was thinking of moving down South to escape the city’s high real estate prices. “But New York is our home,” she said. Her son goes to college in Boston and graduates in May. Robles wants him to have a home to come back to – with his own room. But she’s taking her time and wants to make sure she’s ready for the commitment.

And it is a commitment; this isn’t a home give-away program. Aspiring homeowners pay—and sweat—for it.

“People sometimes think they’ll be renting. Or getting a free home,” said Carly Blatt, marketing and communications manager. But families still have to go through the mortgage process.

Families eligible for the program earn 50 percent to 80 percent of area medium income – roughly $43,000 to $69,000 for four members – and have a credit score of at least 620. Homeowners accepted into the program pay a two percent fixed 30- or 40-year mortgage rate. A family’s income determines the price of their home. Habitat promises potential homeowners that their monthly housing costs will not be more than one-third of their income, not including individual utilities. Habitat reviews applications on a first-come, first-served basis, but gives priority to people living in dangerous situations, like those displaced by Superstorm Sandy.

“We serve people in an income group who wouldn’t be able to become homeowners,” said homeownership manager Richard Winslow.

Potential homeowners also have to complete 200 to 400 hours of volunteer work, called “sweat equity,” including 50 hours at a Habitat construction site. The work can be tough, as the storm has created the need for more “intense” sweat equity opportunities, such as tearing down walls and floors in Staten Island, said Michael Verdi, family service coordinator.

Fulfilling the program’s requirements and getting a mortgage can take from 6 to 12 months. Habitat approved Latoya Davis, 36, in the fall. She’s going through the process now and volunteered at an open house at St. Marks one Saturday to chip away at her required hours of sweat equity.

“It’s a lot,” Davis, a single mother, said, “especially when you’re only one person and you have a life.”

In the meantime, her 4-year-old daughter keeps asking her, “When am I gonna have my own room?”

For more information, visit Habitat’s “100 Homes in Brooklyn” initiative.

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