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YouthBuild students in Schenectady improve their community and themselves

YouthBuild students in Schenectady improve their community and themselves

Young builders complete high-tech house on Prospect Street
YouthBuild students in Schenectady improve their community and themselves
SEAT Executive Director Jennifer Lawrence speaks at the ribbon-cutting for the completed YouthBuild home at 99 Prospect St.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — The first new house built in decades in the Eastern Avenue corridor is complete after 18 months of work by young adults who built themselves up in the process.

The handsome one-family structure at 99 Prospect St. is a marvel of both energy efficiency and cooperation: 52 students have worked on the project since Oct. 17, 2017, with help from multiple agencies and private-industry partners.

Prospect was barricaded to traffic Wednesday morning as more than a hundred people crowded the street for the ribbon-cutting.

Mayor Gary McCarthy hailed the project for its impact on the once-blighted property, the neighborhood, and the dozens of students who learned life skills and job skills on the site.

“It’s producing transformational products. It doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by so many of the people that are here, so many of the people in the community, stepping up and working together to make these things happen.”

Much of the work was done by young adults through YouthBuild, which is run in Schenectady by the Social Enterprise and Training Center and offers people age 16 to 24 a chance to earn a high school diploma or equivalency while learning life skills and job skills.

Joining YouthBuild were The Capital Region Land Bank, which supplied the property; Better Neighborhoods Inc., which helped with building; and Saint-Gobain, which provided more than 50 materials for construction.

The project’s roots go back to 2014, when the city and the Capital Region Land Bank began to focus on revitalizing the Eastern Avenue corridor. It acquired derelict houses at 99 and 101 Prospect St., demolished them, and turned over the land.

Five years later, Land Bank Chairman Richard Ruzzo stood in front of the same lot Wednesday and hailed the finished product.

“What do we have now? We have a brand-new energy-efficient home,” he said. “We’ve already seen tremendous interest in this home, along with the others that we’ve revitalized … These houses become someone’s home. This is where memories are made. This is what neighborhoods are about. This is what revitalization is about.”

Jennifer Lawrence, executive director of SEAT, said that while YouthBuild previously rebuilt an energy-efficient house on Emmett Street to LEED standards with the help of Saint-Gobain, it decided to go a step further with this one, making it a super-efficient net-zero structure.

The effect on the young workers is just as important as the benefit to the environment, she said.

“For us the house is about teaching construction, it’s about reforming our neighborhoods and rehabilitating our neighborhoods but it’s also about transformation,” Lawrence said. “Because when our students work on this house they’re working on transforming their own lives and transforming their community.

“It’s a very powerful thing to go through this house as a student and say, ‘I built this.’”

One of the students who worked on the project, Ebony Polite of Schenectady, said YouthBuild helped her find a path when she was a troubled teen with a child of her own.

“I had a lot of insecurities that would make it hard to step forward,” she said. “When I stepped in I had, like, a family. Nobody looked down on me. … That ultimately helped me become a greater mom to my son, it helped me build better skills.”

She continued: “It’s amazing to sit here in front of all of you and be able to say that the students of YouthBuild and the SEAT Center actually did this. … It’s a blessing to me and I can guarantee it’s a blessing to all the other SEAT members to see this house.”

Matt Gibson of Certainteed said that while parent corporation Saint-Gobain has been partnering with YouthBuild since 2010, the Prospect Street project was the first ground-up construction, the first to use more than 50 of the companies’ sustainable building products, and the first to meet the net-zero standard for efficiency.

Robertino Frasier of Schenectady said he was involved toward the end of the construction phase and isn’t sure yet if he’d like to pursue a career in the construction trades.

“I’m still trying to find and think about what I like,” he said.

Frasier especially liked one component: The Big Magic Box, a thermodynamic device that uses roof-mounted solar panels and heat exchangers to warm water.

“It’s way more efficient than a regular water heater,” he said.

Lawrence said it’s only the fifth installation in the United States for the British-made system.

The level of technology and efficiency in the new house is such that it’s being used as a demonstration site for RPI students, she added.

The four-bedroom, three-bath house cost $350,000 to build and is in negotiation for sale at $180,000 to an income-qualified family.

The disparity between construction cost and sale price is a result of the educational aspect of the project, dozens of students working hundreds of hours each on site with close supervision.

But there’s also a disparity between the new house and the surrounding properties, all of which are at least several decades old and many of which are showing their age.

City records show only two houses on Prospect Street assessed at more than $100,000, and real estate search engines show most area house sales coming in at well below $100,000.

A large part of the Eastern Avenue corridor initiative has been using public-sector and non-profit projects to create momentum toward private-sector revitalization. The YouthBuild house is one of the first pieces of this effort completed, along with a new gourmet market/restaurant at the corner of Prospect and Eastern and a new playground up the hill on Eastern.

Additionally, the former St. Mary’s Church was converted to an event venue, more than 20 derelict houses have been demolished, a former senior center is being converted into apartments, and two former schools are proposed for conversion to apartments.

“This was a vacant lot,” McCarthy said outside 99 Prospect St. “There was nothing here. This represents what’s happening across this community.”

YouthBuild USA President John Valverde, who visited the site Wednesday, said the transformation within the community is mirrored within the young construction workers, most of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds. “It takes all of us working together to level the playing field and ensure that another generation of young people isn’t lost,” he said.

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