Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh, New York
Newburgh, N.Y., is a small city located on the Hudson River about 60 miles north of New York City. Settled in the 1700s, Newburgh prospered as an industrial and transportation center in the 19th century. In recent years, a heavily depressed economy has resulted in high vacancy rates, and widespread abandonment and severe deterioration of building stock. The 2000 U.S. Census ranked several of Newburgh’s census tracts as the fourth most distressed urban area in the country. This includes the local and National Register East End historic district, which features an array of 19th-century housing, much of it freestanding single-family homes and rowhouses. In 1996 the National Trust placed the East End district on its annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, and in 2005 Newburgh was designated a Preserve America Community. Since 1999 Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh has focused rehabilitation and revitalization efforts on the East End district, simultaneously achieving affordable housing and historic preservation objectives.
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh (HFHGN) was established in 1999 and immediately set to work rehabilitating houses in the Washington Heights neighborhood, a part of the large East End historic district. In its brief history, HFHGN has completed 23 rehabilitation projects and constructed 20 new houses. According to Executive Director Deirdre Glenn, the affiliate began work in the Washington Heights neighborhood with the hope that affordable rehabilitation of existing homes would ease the widespread problems of overcrowding and neglect, and bring the formally vibrant late-19th-century neighborhood back to life.
Acquisition & Site Selection
All 23 of HFHGN’s rehab properties were either donations or tax foreclosures acquired directly from the City of Newburgh. Where rehabilitation was not possible—including buildings that had been abandoned for 20-30 years and were in a state of collapse—existing structures were demolished and replaced with architecturally compatible infill housing. For HFHGN’s early infill work, architect and founding board member Peter Smith worked with architect Steven Winter and solicited input from the New York State Historic Preservation Office to develop compatible designs.
In 2007 Habitat International released a pattern book encouraging context-sensitive design. The book further informed infill work in Newburgh, particularly on questions of ADA accessibility. By late 2008 HFHGN had worked with an architect and a new urbanist developer to create a pattern book based on the architecture and urban design of the neighborhood—style, setbacks, street patterns, the rhythm of openings, block termini, color palette, and features of doorways, porches, and entrances—further ensuring that infill would reinforce rather than detract from local character.
HFHGN targeted the Washington Heights section of the East End historic district for rehabilitation and infill specifically because it saw the opportunity to fulfill its basic mission of providing decent, affordable housing while removing blight, returning property to tax rolls, and investing in what was already there.
Because the rehab properties have all been located within the East End historic district, Habitat has worked with the City of Newburgh and partnered with other organizations to achieve preservation standards set forth in the local ordinance. Lynn Eberlee, the City of Newburgh’s Historic Preservation Officer, noted that “everything [Habitat does] is thorough…every one of their applications have been presented in a very thorough, clear and understandable way. Nothing is ever left out—no color. On a cut sheet for a window, the trim is all there. It’s a clear, cut-and-dried application with not a lot to argue about. They really present it in the proper way, which is an example for anybody else there to present on any given night.”
This attention to detail is no accident: HFHGN’s founding board included an experienced architect in Peter Smith, who also sat on Newburgh’s Architectural Review Commission. Members of the Newburgh Historical Society and Newburgh Preservation Association—both active local nonprofits—are also involved with Habitat. The affiliate employs a construction manager with an architectural education, and has enlisted the pro bono design expertise of architecture firms to ensure quality plans. Habitat’s commitment to preservation has been such that Deirdre Glenn, who retired as executive director in the fall of 2010, will be joining the Newburgh Preservation Association as a trustee.
Glenn, whose own background is in art history, described her affiliate as a team that has developed a process and procedures for evaluating buildings and undertaking rehabs, and only demolishing buildings that were structurally compromised—with chimneys falling and roofs caved in. “We’ve done amazing things to save buildings,” she said. According to Glenn, many of the houses in Newburgh were “incredibly well built,” so much so that in two cases, later additions had rotted out, leaving an intact core and an opportunity to provide families with a more reasonably sized home. She noted that many of the structures were so well constructed and had such character that they were actually a pleasure to work with.
HFHGN has also been able to successfully undertake rehabilitation work because of the talent and dedication of volunteers and partnerships with unions. Glenn cited the example of original wooden double doors that volunteers have skillfully shellacked and finished by hand, both preserving an original feature and eliminating the need to invest in a new and potentially incompatible element. Local unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local #363, have donated services and used build sites as a training ground for apprentices, providing tremendous savings to Habitat while engendering a preservation ethic in their own ranks.
Because many of the buildings that HFHGN has acquired for rehabilitation are boarded up and missing windows in their entirety, the affiliate has met the challenge of window replacement with an innovative solution. Newburgh’s preservation commission was willing to accept the use of vinyl as a substitute material provided that the profile and opening size of replacement windows was a faithful reproduction of local styles. HFHGN located a Canadian window manufacturer that produces new windows with the desired historic profile, and because the affiliate completes 7-10 houses a year, it was able to negotiate a bulk price to keep costs down.
Energy & Sustainability
All of HFHGN’s rehabs are Energy Star certified, and the historic-profiled replacement windows are insulated double pane, low-e (energy efficient) designs, double hung to allow circulation. Local volunteers have become skilled in installing insulation and vapor barriers, and construction crews use recycled bricks, brackets, and corbels, as well as engineered lumber, bamboo floors, and energy-efficient appliances and fixtures. No project has yet achieved LEED certification, but the affiliate is moving in that direction. On site, Habitat preserves whatever trees it can and plants new ones.
Lead and Asbestos Abatement
Because of the imperative to provide quality, healthy homes, and due to strict New York State lead and asbestos abatement policies, HFHGN has maintained high standards for evaluation and treatment of rehab houses. The affiliate has learned to estimate abatement costs and staffing needs from the outset of rehabs. On the few sites where severely deteriorated buildings have been demolished, the overall project costs have actually run higher than rehabs because the structures had to be taken down as contaminated waste, costing HFHGN between $42,000 and $56,000 apiece for the demolition alone.
In these difficult situations where buildings were beyond repair and presented a public health threat, Habitat has provided a unique public service: the City of Newburgh was spared the expense of abatement and demolition for buildings it had come to own, and the building lots were returned to the tax rolls complete with compatible infill that contributes to a larger revitalization effort. The approach of rehabbing as a matter of course—and erecting infill on vacant sites or in cases of extreme dereliction—has had a dramatic effect on the residential core of Newburgh, capitalizing on and drawing inspiration from architectural and historic significance instead of endangering it.
Although HFHGN doesn’t restore interiors, the affiliate tries to maintain original details and floor plans where possible. Both because of deteriorated conditions and the need to insulate for Energy Star rating, most rehabs take interiors down to the studs. Glenn admits that this is a hard decision, but adds that some nicer architectural elements can be sold at HFHGN’s ReStore, generating revenue for the affiliate and providing other local renovators with the opportunity to find and replace lost features.
On a largely vacant stretch of East Parmenter Street, where two unsalvageable buildings stood vacant for more than 20 years, HFHGN has undertaken an infill redevelopment project with the assistance of the new urbanist development firm Leyland Alliance. Twenty-four new houses, all designed from the Newburgh East Parmenter Street Pattern Book and reviewed by the City of Newburgh Architectural Review Commission, will be interspersed between existing historic buildings. HFGHN will construct eight new homes while Leyland Alliance will build a mixture of 16 townhomes and single-family residences. In order to realize this master-planned project, the City of Newburgh provided six city-owned lots at reasonable cost, and Orange County, N.Y., awarded the affiliate HUD HOME Funds.
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh has been uniquely successful in achieving its mission while achieving multiple goals within the East End Historic District. Leading neighborhood revitalization by eradicating blight, preserving historic building stock, conserving neighborhood character, and expanding affordable housing, the Newburgh affiliate is a powerful example of what can be accomplished with innovative partnerships and a pragmatic approach. “I personally don’t believe historic preservation needs to add to costs” said Executive Director Glenn. “There’s an awful lot that volunteers can do that’s remarkable.”
All photos courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh