Emotions were high last Wednesday morning, November 15, in East Quogue as Melissa and Kyle Lohr cut the ceremonial ribbon on the doorway to their future Ocean Avenue home.
In the crowd of volunteers, who were preparing to begin work on the previously blighted property that had been boarded up for years, were very few faces the Lohrs recognized.
“We don’t know anybody—which is overwhelming, because there are so many strangers here to help us, and it’s just wonderful,” Ms. Lohr said in an interview immediately following the ceremony.
By this time next year, the newlyweds will be homeowners, after completing a rigorous application and interview process with Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, whose mission is to provide affordable housing.
Making Homeownership Possible
Mr. Lohr is from Riverhead, and Ms. Lohr grew up in Hampton Bays. He works at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead as a dietary aide, taking meal orders and bringing patients their food. She is an environmental services aide at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, responsible for cleaning patients’ rooms. They currently live with her family in her childhood home, not far from the East Quogue property.
Ms. Lohr learned about the opportunity via a family friend, Cathleen Strand-O’Shea, who works for the State Department of Transportation with Ms. Lohr’s father, Eugene Smith—and lives in a Habitat for Humanity home.
Ms. Lohr said that, having known about Habitat for Humanity through Ms. Strand-O’Shea, she and her husband would have applied for a house eventually anyway—but, if accepted, they could have been placed as far away as Wyandanch. That would distance them from their families and their jobs, while their goal was to stay local. When they learned that Habitat Suffolk had obtained the house in East Quogue, they jumped on the chance to apply specifically for that property.
The couple agreed that they would not have been able to afford a home in the area otherwise.
“No, not even close,” Mr. Lohr said. “It’s very expensive.”
Ms. Lohr added, “We had been approved for a $100,000 mortgage—but that would take us to Mastic. And with insurance and everything, we couldn’t even afford what was supposed to be affordable.
“So we ended up not putting a down payment, and that turned out good, because here we are,” she continued. “But, no, we can’t afford anything. We can’t even afford an apartment.”
Les Scheinfeld, the director of development at Habitat Suffolk, pointed out this is the nonprofit’s first home in East Quogue. “But over our almost 29 years … we’ve created 185 homeownership opportunities,” he said. “We’ve built that many affordable homes in Suffolk County, from all the way out in Orient to Huntington Station, and down to Wyandanch.”
And, currently, in addition to East Quogue, there are homes under construction in Mastic Beach, Bay Shore, Sound Beach and Bellport.
Habitat Suffolk most often gets its properties through Suffolk County’s affordable housing program, but the East Quogue property was bank-owned, Mr. Scheinfeld said. “So, instead of taking that property that they get back because of foreclosure or abandonment, and maybe trying to sell it to recoup their losses, the bank puts some properties aside to find nonprofit organizations like Habitat to donate it to,” he explained.
A Glut Of Applications
The homeownership application process starts at habitatsuffolk.org, but the website currently states that Habitat Suffolk has suspended accepting applications because of the high volume over the last year.
“We get many applications, and it’s a tough selection process, because the families have to fit the financial criteria, also their credit and job history, and also the understanding that they’re going to be a partner with Habitat,” Mr. Scheinfeld said. “And once they get through the applications, they’re interviewed by our family support committee volunteers, who bring back a recommendation to the board whether or not the family should be approved.”
To be eligible, a family’s household income can be no higher than 80 percent of area median income, which is $110,800 for households in Suffolk and Nassau counties, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“In the end, this is the family that was selected,” Mr. Scheinfeld said of the Lohrs. “We try to find the way to keep a family somewhere close to their community. If there are children, to keep them close to the school that they’ve been going to. If people are working, close to where they work. So this worked out wonderfully. It really did.”
Though there is a common belief that Habitat for Humanity gives away homes, that is not the case. “That’s always the misconception, that it’s a gift. And it’s not a gift,” Mr. Scheinfeld said. “It’s a family that’s going to be working in the community that has, now, the opportunity to afford to own their own home.”
He said a sales price is worked out with subsidies, so when the new homeowners close on their property, they can afford their home and the taxes. “We still have a mortgage,” Ms. Lohr said. “We’re still paying just like everybody else. Habitat just makes sure that it’s fixed. … It’s never more than 30 percent of what we make.
“So that way we can afford it for the rest of the 30-year mortgage, so that way we don’t end up getting uprooted and kicked out of the house that we worked so hard to get. They make sure that it is affordable forever.”
The Lohrs, like others who benefit from Habitat Suffolk’s work, are also required to volunteer both for Habitat for Humanity and in the community where they will live. “We’ve already volunteered almost all of our required volunteer time,” Ms. Lohr said.
They gave hours to the Ecological Culture Initiative, a nonprofit based in Hampton Bays, and signed up to volunteer at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. They will also put sweat equity into their future home, and work on other Habitat Suffolk job sites, and in the Habitat Suffolk office in Middle Island.
Helping Hands Overcoming Challenges
Habitat Suffolk most often builds from the ground up. As a renovation, the East Quogue house is not a typical project for the organization—but it is not unfamiliar territory either.
“It was a one-story house at one time, and somebody built a cinder block house around it and added a second floor,” said Chris McNamee, the construction site manager for Habitat Suffolk.
The one-story house inside the house was removed, and a new foundation and subfloor were put in, because the original foundation was unstable, Ms. McNamee said.
Now stabilized, the house was ready for the volunteers to come in. Among their objectives on their first day was to gut the second floor and remove the gutters. Plans also call for removing stucco from the exterior, so the house can eventually be clad in cedar shakes.
“It’ll be a new roof, new windows, new doors. Everything new,” Ms. McNamee said. “Only the exterior shell, some of the interior framing, will be left. But, basically, all new, top to bottom.”
She said masons and plumbers are paid for their work, and the electric work is completed by trainees from the Electrical Training Center, based in Copiague. “Nobody who works for Habitat charges us what they normally would charge,” she said. “So, it’s a huge collaboration of people working to keep the price low, by donating their time, donating materials, donating labor and charging us less.”
This particular project has two principal supporters, Riverhead Building Supply and the Hamptons Interfaith Council. “It’s a full-house sponsorship from Riverhead Building Supply, and they’ve been partnering with Habitat since the beginning,” Mr. Scheinfeld said.
Edgar Goodale, the owner of Riverhead Building Supply, which is headquartered in Calverton, said “yes” when Habitat asked for help on its first house, in Riverhead, and has contributed close to $750,000 in financial support and material donations over the years since then, according to Mr. Scheinfeld.
The plans for the East Quogue renovation were drawn up by Ed Miller, an architect who has been working with Habitat Suffolk for 25 years. “He came to us because they wanted us to build a prettier home—they being communities in which we build. And so he came to us with that in mind,” said Habitat Suffolk Executive Director and CEO Diane Burke.
Because the East Quogue house is on a narrow property, only 40 feet wide, tearing it down and starting anew was not an option, Ms. Burke said; current zoning would not permit rebuilding a house on the property. So Mr. Miller had to work with what was there.
Ms. Burke said that in her five years at Habitat Suffolk, the nonprofit has never turned down a bank-owned property—despite the challenges the properties may pose—because the opportunities are so few and far between.
“This house was one of those that we were, like, ‘Is this too much of a challenge for us?’” she recalled. “And then we decided that this area is in such need of affordable housing that we were going to take on that challenge.”
To learn about volunteering for Habitat Suffolk in East Quogue or elsewhere, with a group or as an individual walk-on, visit habitatsuffolk.org.