The Habitat for Humanity house nearing completion in the town of Seward might be the last project for Habitat for Humanity of Schoharie County.
The small chapter of the global non-profit is facing dissolution in the face of dwindling interest from volunteers and fewer eligible homeowners who can afford the monthly payments on a Habitat house.
“We’re just trying to see whether or not there is a true need for Habitat in Schoharie County,” said Executive Director John Rose, one of two remaining board members at the organization. “From [Tropical Storms Irene and Lee in 2011], we’ve lost about 1,500 families. Unemployment is pretty high in the county. And it’s just getting hard to find volunteers and to find good partnering families.”
The organization builds homes for low-income families, which it then sells to them with a zero-interest mortgage. But as property taxes have gone up, Rose said, even a zero-interest mortgage, with utilities and other costs included, often can come out to more than $900 a month.
For the struggling families Habitat serves, that’s often too much, he said.
Since 1995, the Schoharie chapter has built five homes. Since the economic downturn that began in 2008, some of those partner families have been struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments.
“I don’t take this lightly, what’s happening,” Rose said. “I think it’s a great organization.”
Unemployment in the county last year is close to what it was when the chapter was founded in 1995. Then, it was at 6.2 percent on a yearly average; in 2015 it was 6.6 percent, according to the state Department of Labor. But the organization is still seeing the effects of a five-year stretch of unemployment figures well above 8 percent — once above 9 percent — from 2009 to 2013.
While that curve has matched statewide averages, it’s been consistently about half a percentage point higher.
“Schoharie [County] is in tough shape as far as employment goes,” Rose said.
In the same time period, he’s seen small contractors such as carpenters and masons who used to pitch in for Habitat projects either close down or leave the county as the housing market slowed.
The strain of recovery from the tropical storms also has played a role, Rose said.
“Since Lee and Irene, most people have been volunteering to help the villages of Middleburgh and Schoharie, and a lot of folks I’ve depended on in the past have become exhausted from volunteering,” Rose said. “They have needs of their own. So it’s been kind of hard to find volunteers to contribute their time for free to do this.”
It’s been even harder to find board members, who have to make greater time commitments for free, he said.
“I just don’t think people volunteer the way they used to,” Rose said. “Younger folks just don’t seem to have the time.”
In nearby but radically different Schenectady County, Habitat for Humanity is thriving. The chapter has built 43 houses since 1993 and has that many again currently under construction, according to Executive Director Madelyn Thorne.
Population is a big part of that. The city alone has twice the population of all of Schoharie County. But Thorne also attributes the chapter’s success to aggressive outreach, including the popular ReStore, where used furniture and building materials are sold, as well as a quicker economic recovery in Schenectady.
“Certainly we’re in a more urban area; there’s simply more industry here,” she said. “Schoharie is still rural. It’s economically at a disadvantage. Schenectady has certainly started turning the corner.”
And while the Schenectady chapter sent volunteers to Schoharie County after the floods from the tropical storms in 2011, and would do so again, Thorne said it’s not likely to do any day-to-day work there if the county’s chapter hangs up its hammers.
As he and another volunteer finish up the house in Seward in the next few months, Rose is exploring dissolution.
He’s reaching out to local churches, a traditionally reliable source of volunteers — though there are somewhat fewer of those in existence, too, as three small United Methodist congregations were closed last summer — to put together an ad-hoc committee to examine Habitat’s future in the county.
If the chapter needs to be closed, Rose said he doesn’t think he should be the one making the decision.
“It’s a county organization, so before you say that we’re going to shut it down, I think that people need to have a voice in it,” he said. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
Reach Gazette reporter Kyle Adams at 723-081, [email protected] or @KyleRAdams on Twitter.