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Norwich, Habitat for Humanity making homeownership possible

Norwich — City Manager John Salomone wanted to use a good portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan grants to create a plan that would attack blighted housing, boost the city tax rolls and create more affordable homeownership.

Pretty quickly, he realized he didn’t have to create the program. It existed in the successful, well-respected local agency Habitat for Humanity of Eastern Connecticut.

“We had a concept originally to take the abandoned and foreclosed properties, and instead of just turning around and selling them, to renovate and sell them, so they would go back into the neighborhood as positive places,” Salomone said. “Then I started thinking about it. I’ve always admired the houses that Habitat puts up, and they have a lot of expertise, so maybe we could partner and enhance the project for us, take the administration away and leverage the money and get more out of it.”

Two weeks before he was to present his plan to the City Council for using the city’s nearly $30 million in ARP grants over the next two years, Salomone approached Habitat Executive Director Terri O’Rourke with the idea of forming an affordable housing partnership.

“An investment in housing always generates renewed or new revenue to the city,” O’Rourke said.

New homeowner Siobhan Brannen, 36, is excited by the opportunity to live in her own house after having grown up in apartments. On Friday, she worked with project superintendent Joel Webster to cut and hang sections of siding on the front of her new house at 47 Margerie St.

All Habitat-selected homeowners are required to contribute sweat equity in the construction of their homes. Brannen's house will be one of the first to be completed later this summer in a new subdivision in the Habitat-owned lot between Sylvester and Margerie streets off Boswell Avenue. Her house also will be either the 99th or 100th home finished by Habitat for Humanity of Eastern Connecticut in the past 35 years, said Geoff Taylor, Habitat director of development.

Brannen said she went from thinking, "I'll never be a homeowner" after her 2018 divorce, to being "haunted" by the possibility after her church, Norwich Worship Center, posted that Habitat was seeking applicants in 2019.

The night she walked into the first applicants' meeting, her emotions swirled. She saw the large crowd and thought she didn't have a chance. She sat down and listened.

"An overwhelming feeling came over me that I was going to be selected," she recalled. "I just knew."

Brannen, an attendance and extended learning coordinator for Norwich Public Schools, her two teenage boys and 4-year-old daughter will move in come fall.

Brannen, who is renting a friend's house, started her required volunteer work for Habitat at the agency's new home construction on Golden Street and in winter volunteered at the Habitat ReStore in Waterford. As her house started to take shape, she selected an indigo blue siding and a blue-swirl countertop and started buying tools at hardware stores.

"I learned so much working there," she said. "I took it home and used it to fix things. I met a lot of really nice people. The Habitat family is so nice."

She also is excited to meet her new neighbors and explore the quiet neighborhood near the Shetucket River.

The subdivision will have 10 homes, eight of them ranches constructed in pairs with a small exterior utility rooms connecting each pair, with two off-street parking spaces for each home.

A similar pair of ranch houses was completed on Golden Street in December 2020.

One pair of homes facing Sylvester Street are built into a steep slope with garages beneath the homes and an exterior stairway as the connector in between the houses.

Pandemic slowed things

Habitat had purchased the overgrown lot — where a defunct subdivision plan had been proposed — in 2011 and tore down one dilapidated house. Construction started before the COVID-19 pandemic and had to be shut down for three to four months, Taylor said. Volunteers were not permitted at Habitat construction sites, and Habitat crews were limited. Work resumed in June 2020 but with limited staff until about a month ago.

COVID-19 put the project one year behind schedule and subjected it to rising construction material costs. Now, the two houses with garages and the first two ranches will be completed later this summer. Habitat plans to pour foundations for the remaining six homes in fall and frame the houses so that work can continue through winter, Taylor said.

Habitat hires licensed contractors for the plumbing, electrical and foundation pouring work and to raise the roof trusses. The rest of a typical construction project is done by Habitat workers and volunteers, including the families selected as new homeowners.

Brannen said the ongoing construction means the neighborhood won't be settled for a while, but she is pleased that Habitat crews will be close by if she has problems or questions with her new house.

Three families have been selected for the first four homes, Taylor said, and an application round just ended for the fourth house. Habitat starts by reviewing basic finances to ensure applicants can afford the mortgage and costs of owning a home. “We want to set them up for success, not for failure,” Taylor said. A deeper look into finances, in-person interviews and home visits follows.

Habitat will retain ownership of the land in the subdivision to reduce costs for the families and will charge a minimal, less than $30 per month land rental fee. The homeowners will be responsible for all yard care and maintenance.

Webster, construction supervisor, said Habitat has high standards for energy efficiency, including insulation, windows, LED lighting, ventilation, hot water and appliances.

Looking for homes to rehab

In the partnership proposal, to be voted on Aug. 2 by the City Council, the city would allocate $1.2 million in ARP grant money to Habitat, with $360,000 to cover a gap in financing to finish the construction of 10 new homes on Sylvester and Margerie streets in the Greeneville area. Another $840,000 would fund rehabilitation of an estimated seven run-down houses the city either has taken or will acquire through tax foreclosures or abandonment.

According to a spreadsheet accompanying the plan, Habitat is investing $1.56 million in non-city money into the Greeneville subdivision, and the agency will contribute $210,000 toward the future rehabilitations. Salomone estimated the city will recover its investment on the subdivision in about nine years through new property taxes paid on the homes. The return on investment for the rehabilitated homes could take about 24 years.

"It's always exciting to be approached by somebody, a municipality, to partner with us," O'Rourke said. "We talked it through, our schedule, our current workload. It matches what Habitat is doing in the Greeneville area. ... And the fact that it's still an ownership program, we're excited to have the opportunity to serve more families with homes in that area."

Even before Salomone proposed the unique partnership, Taylor said Norwich has proved to be a great working partner, with city inspectors and Norwich Public Utilities responsive to issues and inspections of the work.

Selecting the seven houses to be rehabilitated could take time. Habitat is looking for homes people can afford to own, not renovated apartment houses for landlords or any of the city’s numerous Victorian-era mansions.

Salomone said there are several advantages to turning over the homes to Habitat for rehabilitation. If the city simply turned around and auctioned or sold the homes, there is no guarantee of future rehabilitation or owner occupancy.

The city held a tax auction last week that featured more than a dozen homes, mobile homes, condominiums and vacant lots. A few properties did not sell, so those would be the first considered for the new Habitat program. After that, tax foreclosures come up about every two to three months, so the rehab project would be phased in over time.

“Under my (original plan), we would sell them outright,” Salomone said. “Under this, it’s a new homeowner. That’s a benefit.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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