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Greater Rochester Housing Partnership: Strengthening Neighborhoods and Enabling Affordable Homeownership

According to the Rochester 2034 Comprehensive Plan, the City of Rochester has a “soft” housing market. A “soft” market means that the home value-to-household income ratio is not as high as it should be. Improved home values help the homeowner, their neighbors, the neighborhood, and a community, as it increases the tax income for the city and equity for the homeowner. With an aging housing stock, it’s clear that there is a significant opportunity to renovate and resuscitate homes that may appear blighted, but present a path forward to homeownership and neighborhood stability.

As the saying goes, “It takes a village,” and that adage applies to raising up an entire community, one that provides access to quality housing with homes that are safe, nonhazardous, reliable, and accessible. Stable housing breeds access to stable relationships, better healthcare, education, economic equality, and safety. Additionally, homeownership is the most common path forward to increasing the opportunity for savings and building long-term, intergenerational wealth.

Rochester is rich in its village of resources and community partnerships that work together to establish and foster a community that provides access to affordable housing. One such entity, Greater Rochester Housing Partnership (GRHP), is a proven resource that makes a tremendous impact on the neighborhoods and lives it serves in the City of Rochester and Monroe County (disclosure: ESL is a funder of GRHP). GRHP is a not-for-profit lender that works to rehabilitate vacant homes, revitalize neighborhoods, and provide quality affordable homeownership opportunities.

What started as a stand-alone nonprofit nearly 30 years ago is now a great collaborator with public, private, and nonprofit organizations, including the City of Rochester and Rochester Land Bank Corporation, among numerous other partners. GRHP has lent more than $85 million in construction financing to borrowers, which has created 1,300 affordable apartments and financed more than 1,000 single-family homes.

HOME Rochester Program Builds Community Value, One Rehabilitated House at a Time

GRHP’s signature program, the HOME Rochester program, acquires, and rehabilitates vacant single-family homes in the City of Rochester for sale to low- and moderate-income first-time buyers. Theodora Finn, president of the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership, says in 17 years, the HOME Rochester program has developed more than 800 homes across 19 zip codes in the City of Rochester since the program’s inception.

“We work with Rochester Housing Development Fund Corporation, our sister agency, to acquire vacant ‘zombie’ housing—typically foreclosures,” Finn says. “We collaborate with other partners—nonprofits, different funding partners, local contractors, and agencies that provide other kinds of services for first-time homebuyers. We renovate those homes to a very high standard for income-eligible first-time homebuyers and then sell to those first-time homebuyers.”

HOME Rochester takes vacant and neglected houses and restores them to a superior finish. “We work to remediate the houses for environmental hazards, so if there’s mold or asbestos, we remediate those issues and we ensure all of the homes are also lead-safe, so we’re creating healthy housing opportunities through those measures,” Finn says. “We work with our partners to renovate them to a very high standard—so they typically have new roofs, windows, all new interiors, kitchens, bathrooms, and we do incorporate a green overlay so there are low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and finishes, high-efficiency furnaces and hot water heaters, and added insulation to make sure the building envelope is tight—to ensure the home is as energy-efficient as possible to keep the costs down over time for our buyers.”

The criteria for the HOME Rochester program is a single-family home with three or four bedrooms and off-street parking. The annual income for most first-time homebuyers in the HOME Rochester program is $20,000-$60,000 a year. Thus, the program serves individuals who would not otherwise be able to independently access quality property of this magnitude.

“The backdrop to all of this is that everyone needs and deserves a quality housing situation that provides the platform for success in other areas of life, and I think it really does that—the HOME Rochester program, as well as the rental work that we do,” Finn says. “And it allows folks to build equity over time and have an asset, and as the market has appreciated, it enables meaningful economic gains.”

Straub St. house renovation: before and after

Positive Community Impact Across Rochester and Throughout Monroe County

The community impact is profound, from raising property values to keeping homeownership to the individual, reducing the level of investor-owned properties, and mitigating the chance for neglect by an investor who wouldn’t devote the level of rehab compared to GRHP.

“You can look at a map of where we’ve invested and see there are multiple investments on a given block, and each home we turn around from being a vacant property to property owned by a first-time home owner, it helps the neighborhood overall. It helps the surrounding property values sustain or increase,” Finn says. “We did an evaluation, and it showed improvements increased the value of surrounding homes by about $15,000 versus if that home were left vacant.”

The program adds to the tax base and supports local contractors, including high participation by minority and woman-owned businesses (MWBEs), and partners with local lending, real estate firms, and law firms, creating local jobs and deepening partnerships across Rochester. Since the program’s inception, $1.5 million has been added back to the City of Rochester’s tax base, more than $45 million in private mortgages have been secured, and in 2018, $1,778,000 was paid to local contractors, 80% of which are MWBE organizations.

The next phase of growth for GRHP involves expanding its work outside of the city into Monroe County. Finn noted that this work will happen at a slower pace and within a smaller scope, as GRHP does not have the land bank to assist with the acquisition of properties. While working within the private real estate sector will present more challenges to acquire properties, Finn is confident that GRHP’s plan will come to fruition.

“Given capacity, our goal would be about five properties per year in Monroe County, outside of the City of Rochester,” she said. “Our goal is still to add value to those homes and neighborhoods, and we are confident in our path forward to accomplish this. We’re more engage in following the private market to see which properties will be the best fit.”

Post Ave. house renovation: before and after

Multiple Resources are the Secret Sauce

The many hands and resources involved is what makes the program a success, especially through a pandemic. The effects of COVID-19 put a strain on affordable housing. From the price of lumber and construction to employment issues forcing a truncated workforce, the impact is widespread.

Director of Real Estate for the City of Rochester Paul Scuderi says, “Vacant houses can have a negative impact on a neighborhood like a virus and may cause more vacancies. If we can get to a neighborhood that’s generally in good shape and relatively stable and find that blighting influence, we’ll do what we can to make that acquisition happen. And we’ve attempted some private acquisitions, as well—properties that were not in danger of being lost through tax foreclosure. We’ll try to make an intentional purchase of the property to go in and stabilize it and stop the influence before it spreads.”

GRHP and Rochester Housing Development Fund Corporation have partnered with the Rochester Land Bank Corporation since its inception to acquire vacant properties for renovation as affordable housing for first-time homebuyers. Land Bank offers a different opportunity to acquire properties because of the legislation that enables the formation of the entity. This is what feeds the HOME Rochester house pipeline. Scuderi describes the partnership as having two arms: GRHP is mainly the new construction side and Rochester Housing Development Fund Corporation is the rehab side with the city and land bank.

“When we acquire the properties as the land bank, we then work with the partnership on doing some general real estate professional due diligence,” Scuderi says. “We’ll have the title work done, we’ll do a brief environmental review, we can do investigative work using the full resources of the city at our disposal—so we can use the city engineering department, we can look at past uses in the building records, and we can get a pretty good idea environmentally if there’s anything to worry about. We’ll forward properties to the partnership for inclusion on the HOME Rochester program. There are times through our grant funding when we have money we can contribute to the rehab to reduce the subsidy amount that the partnership will ask the city to help with.”

The City of Rochester help is two-fold. The first is to acquire the properties at a reasonable cost (and use any remaining money, which is typically available from the grant the city uses, to provide some level of subsidy assistance). “The partnership has been a great asset to the city and land bank—the HOME Rochester program has done upward of 800 properties that they’ve fully renovated and have subsequently sold to a first-time owner occupant who is income-qualified, so it checks a lot of boxes,” Scuderi says.

The other benefit the HOME Rochester program has—and one Scuderi and Finn work closely on—is working to select a property that has blighting influence on a neighborhood. Those properties become targets for illegal activity and drastically impact the homes around them. “The effect can be profound,” Scuderi says. “So if we can get ahold of those properties, stabilize and rehab them, get them back to where there’s an owner occupant in there—they have more at stake, so they take care of the homes better. That whole component makes such a huge difference to the long-term stability of a neighborhood. It’s a well-supported program and the finished product is incredible.”

The program is all encompassing, with an educational component also included. When the homeowners get the keys to their new home, they also get to unlock potential for independent stability, as they receive pre- and post-purchase training to understand the basics of home maintenance. The partnership provides toolkits with essentials like a hammer, nails, and duct tape.

“Most participants are in the same boat—just starting out, they’ve never owned a home before,” Scuderi says. “The actual dream of homeownership being realized is awesome to be a part of. It’s something people have worked hard for, there’s an emotional response from the folks buying the house—they finally get their home, they’ve worked with the city on being qualified financially, they’ve worked with the partnership and inspectors are there. It’s the convergence of groups working together to make this happen. It never gets old seeing how happy somebody is and the giant smile on their face when we close and their realization that this is their house now.”

Getting the Word Out and Keeping the Support Going

GRHP/RHDFC partners with neighborhood-based community development corporations and nonprofit developers such as Pathstone Corporation get the word out on the HOME Rochester program. Part of the role of these partners is marketing the homes for sale.

There is currently a wait list of buyers, so GRHP/RHDFC relies on its nonprofit partners to market the homes and cultivate buyers early on. GRHP/RHDFC lists the homes on when the homes are ready to be seen and the construction is complete. GRHP/RHDFC work with the City of Rochester to qualify the buyers and provide down payment and closing cost assistance. They maintain the wait list.

There is certainly no shortage of individuals and families in need, and everyone deserves to live in quality housing—it’s a human right. The goal of the HOME Rochester program is to provide a home that is energy efficient, safe, affordable, attractive, and livable. In short, it’s a house people are proud to call home. And so much more.