Tuesday, September 3, 2013

NY organization helps families ‘fill the gaps’ when other assistance stops

When a tornado, hurricane or other disaster strikes, there is typically a rush of media attention and emergency assistance. But then, the spotlight shifts and families are left to struggle to fill the “gaps” that remain, on their own.

Tenth anniversary seal
That’s what happened when Tropical Storm Irene hit the Eastern Coast on Aug. 29, 2011, and flood waters poured out of the Adirondack Mountains through the tiny town of Keene, in northern New York. The area was declared a disaster zone, and even after federal funds and private donations poured in, many families and businesses were still fighting to “stay afloat” months later. Fortunately, Housing Assistance Program of Essex County (HAPEC), which is celebrating its 10th year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, considers filling gaps to be its core mission.

Consider the story of Russ and Angie. The flood waters seriously damaged the stone foundation and first floor of the front section of their modest home, and the back addition with the bedrooms for their two preschool-aged children was destroyed.

The family of four moved temporarily onto the grounds of a local summer camp, while they began repairs using funds from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), community donations and their own retirement savings. However, although they were able to move back into their home in March of 2012, they didn’t have enough money to rebuild their children’s bedrooms, forcing the family to “double-up” in cramped quarters. Government assistance had dried up, and “donor fatigue” had set in, even among their friends. “Our family is at the end of our rope emotionally,” Russ wrote in one email to HAPEC, describing their plight.

Habitat for Humanity team joins with NeighborWorks group to rebuild the Cooks' home
A team from Habitat for Humanity joined HAPEC to help
re-build the family home of Russ and Angie.
That’s when HAPEC stepped in. With the help of a NeighborWorks America emergency-assistance grant, the organization helped the family pay off its outstanding loans, prepped the site for the re-build and recruited a Habitat for Humanity team to construct the new shell. Russ and Angie finished the walls and flooring. The finishing touch, again provided by HAPEC, was a wood-pellet stove for heating.

“Given what they had been through, and the exhaustion of their personal savings, Russ and Angie would not have been able to complete this work on their own for quite some time,” says Bruce Misarski, community development director for HAPEC. “Now, their house is ‘whole’ again, and they have bedrooms for their kids.”

HAPEC was founded in 1976 as the first local organization qualified to receive and administer HUD Section 8 rental assistance, which had just been authorized by Congress two years before. Today, HAPEC defines its focus much more broadly: to “alleviate economic distress, enhance personal dignity and cultivate self-reliance” in a rural county where employment mostly depends on low-wage, seasonal tourism and the household median income is 18 percent below the national average.

HAPEC services range from assistance with homebuyer education, to home repairs, to partnerships for the development of affordable multi-family housing. An impact assessment conducted for HAPEC and published in 2011 found that in one year, the organization:

Created nearly 92 jobs – one of every 200 jobs in Essex County alone.
Assisted 35 families in purchasing their first home.
Helped 57 homeowners rehab their existing houses.
Issued 650 rental-assistance vouchers.
Managed 25 apartments for senior citizens.
Provided foreclosure counseling for 44 families.

Alan Hipps, executive director, points to two keys that are instrumental to his organization’s success: effective fundraising – more than $2.5 million a year – and creative partnerships with other institutions, such as Habitat for Humanity and NeighborWorks America. “Our mission is simple, but ambitious: We strive to recognize community development and housing needs, advocate change and respond to opportunities.”