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Building for the Future in White Plains

Habitat for Humanity of Westchester is constructing a home in White Plains for the Brown family on Highland Avenue.

Jim Killoran speaks in rapid-fire sentences with the conviction of a true believer. The executive director of the New Rochelle based Habitat for Humanity of Westchester—he habitually punctuates sentences with the words “amen” and “God.”

He’s been involved with housing issues for so long that he’s accumulated several slogans: his organization provides “a helping hand, not a handout”; “building stronger communities is a bottom-up, not a top-down priority”; and “we have all we need in the world, but not enough for all the greed.”

Of course, he’s optimistic about the future.

“Right now, I’ve never felt more excited for Habitat for Humanity in this county,” he said. “We are the eighth largest home builder in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal and in Westchester—and going forward, we’re looking at transforming whole neighborhoods.”

One of the organization’s current projects is under construction at 3 Highland Ave. in White Plains, being built for Rose Brown and her family. Brown, who grew up in White Plains, bought the lot in 1998 after her husband died of lung cancer—but she rented an apartment in a pleasant section of Mount Vernon that put a dent in her paycheck. Tax payments on the land in White Plains also burdened her finances.

“I was 42 and my children were 6, 10 and 12 at the time my husband died,” she said. “Two years after that I became unemployed, and my sister died a few months later in my arms. I paid an excessive amount of rent for a number of years to keep the children in a safe area; it’s a sacrifice that I made, but I purchased the land without the income to continue and pursue my dream.”

Habitat stipulates that candidates for a house must live in substandard housing, a designation that is admittedly vague, said Killoran—and must fall below the median Housing and Urban Development income guidelines, generally around $45,000 to $50,000 a year in Westchester. They receive interest-free loans, aren’t required to pony up a down payment, and must put in 500 hours of sweat equity into constructing the house.

At the moment, Brown’s youngest child is 19. Two are currently in college and she plans to have her mother move in when the home is complete—sometime between this summer and Thanksgiving. This month, Brown, who works at a not-for-profit company, moved to a new apartment around the corner from the site of her new home.

The three-story home on Highland Avenue is the first modular building that Killoran has ever put up. But even though it takes less work to finish a modular home, which is assembled in large chunks with a crane, there are plenty of things left to be done.

“Everything looks easy,” said Killoran. “Now, I have to grovel for gravel. The house is the least expensive part. The hard part is the plumbing, which will cost around $15,000, the siding and the sewer connection.”

He seeks donations from local banks and other businesses to sponsor the cabinets and the flooring. Part of the issue is that by relying on volunteers, the labor is usually unskilled, but that’s the part Killoran enjoys.

“We will have Trinity Lutheran Church, , the , and the helping out,” he said. “When people pick up a hammer and get to know people, they realize that they’re part of the solution. We want the community to touch it and be a part of it.”

Brown discovered that her neighbors were also willing to help. One man, a State Trooper stationed in Hawthorne, offered to bring some of his colleagues by to work on the house.

Luis Palacio, who owns a home nearby, said that people are working on this house all the time. His sister lives in a Habitat for Humanity home nearby.

“She put her name on a waiting list and worked very hard for 500 hours for free,” said Palacio. “She got lucky and sometimes that’s what happens in life.”

Habitat has built six homes in White Plains on Fairview Avenue and rehabbed two others. Killoran is in discussions with the city to build a house at 10 Odell Ave. The group will also hold its American Dream Luncheon fundraiser at the Crowne Plaza in June.  

Click on the PDF for information on tickets and how to contribute. Click here to make a donation.

“The beauty of Habitat is that we speak in all different denominations,” said Killoran. “It’s not about the walls we build, it’s how we build together. On a site, you don’t know who you’re working next to and it doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or you’re Jewish, Christian or atheist—it’s a great equalizer.”

Killoran is expanding the organization’s traditional goal of putting up one and two-family houses and is seeking empty school buildings and other sites to build condominiums. Ever the proselytizer, he’s quick to point out that even though home prices have been falling, they’re still prohibitive for working class people.

“The foundation to build across this county is stronger than ever,” he said. “We need to be able to build homes for the school bus driver, the bank teller, the average working Joe, instead of sending everyone over the Tappan Zee Bridge, which is falling apart.”

Be sure to click on the great videos of the the Brown home being built.

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