SCHENECTADY – Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County used money from the city’s HOMES initiative to complete a build at 323 Schenectady St. in 2016.
But a woman’s murder and other neighborhood concerns on that street’s 500 block made it a difficult sell, according to the agency’s executive director, Madelyn Thorne.
The lack of interest made Thorne try something outside the box.
Thorne said she recruited a particular individual, Community Fathers Executive Director Walter Simpkins, to apply.
Simpkins’ eventual purchase of the house was celebrated to fanfare at City Hall Tuesday as part of National Homeownership Month.
Thorne said Simpkins’ understanding of the neighborhood, combined with his reputation in the city, and “all the work he does in the 12307″ made him a good fit, and “we just have to get him there.”
Community Fathers is a full fatherhood program with programs in domestic violence offender accountability, re-entry to society from the Schenectady County Jail, a community fathers drug court group, male achievers program involving students from high school, and more.
The nature of Simpkins’ work meant the neighborhood would soon be overrun by “young men that are working to get their lives on track,” Thorne said of her recruitment effort.
Local and federal officials highlighted Simpkins’ home-buying journey as an example of the multiple options city residents can access if they’re considering buying, and Mayor Gary McCarthy declared June 29 Walter Simpkins Day.
Simpkins bought the house in December, after Habitat worked again with the city development department to yield Simpkins a rent-to-own agreement of more than two years.
Meanwhile, Simpkins’ mortgage readiness needed work, so the first-time homebuyer received help from Better Communities Neighborhood Inc. Counselor Alexandria Carver.
The organization rehabs and builds homes in the community, and Carver helped Simpkins improve his creditworthiness while guiding him through the mortgage approval process.
McCarthy read a proclamation that recognized Simpkins as a recent city homeowner who’s “touched the lives of countless individuals throughout the region through his personal story and professional work, restoring hope to young men in our community.”
“This is too much,” Simpkins reacted during the roundtable discussion that included U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s Buffalo field office director Lisa Pugliese, who participated virtually.
The group credited Simpkins for being a beacon of the Habitat neighborhood’s turnaround. Habitat had already completed eight builds prior to construction of Simpkins’ home.
In turn, Simpkins said he loves the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood has such a spirit of hope for all of us because many of us on that block are Habitat homeowners,” he said.
Simpkins said being able to rent to own for the same monthly price Simpkins paid in rent elsewhere made the purchase a reality.
Thorne said Habitat returned the rent as a grant for Simpkins’ down payment.
After the roundtable, Simpkins, who’s in his 70s, said he considers owning a home a miracle after he arrived in Schenectady from Brooklyn in 1999, “broke,” deeply depressed and transient.
Simpkins said he got his depression diagnosed and treated here, and opportunities have opened up for him since moving to Schenectady. He started Community Fathers in 2009.
Simpkins said he had never considered owning a home, because in New York City most people of color are apartment dwellers.
“I was perfectly content to be an apartment dweller until the opportunity availed itself to me,” he said.
Simpkins said owning property in the city he serves feels like “a combination of what has come out of my DNA here in Schenectady, transforming my life, and trying to help transform the people around me. This has been everything.”
The city launched the HOMES – Homeownership Made Easy in Schenectady – initiative as a partnership between area banks, realtors, and other housing-related entities to promote and facilitate homeownership.
The initiative’s first-time homebuyer program provides up to $10,000 in help with down payment and closing costs to low- and moderate-income buyers.
McCarthy said the city views ownership as central to the stability of city neighborhoods, and a cornerstone of strength for its working families.
McCarthy outlined the city’s coordinated effort to remove blighted properties, and sell vacant properties, working with potential homebuyers while facilitating rehab and construction with HUD, Habitat, realtors, bankers, community leaders, and other entities.
Their collective efforts work to break down barriers and ensure hardworking families have proper access and opportunity to the dream of homeownership, McCarthy said.
Last year, working with a Capital Region Land Bank the city demolished 34 blighted and distressed vacant buildings – what McCarthy described as the worst of the worst – to create opportunities for new housing.
The Schenectady Housing Development Fund Corp. helped 11 first time homebuyers in 2020.
Pugliese said HUD provides FHA mortgage insurance that accepts lower down payments and credit qualification, and HUD-approved housing counseling agencies can help homebuyers through the purchasing process with guidance and education.
Simpkins said many people in the city aren’t aware of the homeownership opportunities made available by the city.
“They don’t know that there are people around them that would be willing to help them every step of the way. And I’m really hoping this will tell the people who are on the borderline of society, or trying to figure out if it’s possible, I’d like to say the possibilities are yours. All you have to do is step forward, and we can make it happen. Things happen.”