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EDITORIAL: Help Habitat house neighbors


I ONCE DESIGNED a building and helped my father build it. When it was done it looked like a large piece of cheese.

I’m tempted to call this “building” an example of architectural Dairy-modern design. It was actually a two-story shed. It quickly attracted spiders and other bugs to the rafters. Only a few human visitors ever braved a night there. Too spooky when you add the owl talk and whatever it was that snapped dry sticks all night in the woods.

It was a learning experience. It taught me that residential construction, or any kind of hard labor and skill would not be my career path. It also give me an appreciation for how many skills and how many people it takes to create a safe, sturdy house where people want to live.

There’s a lot of talk about affordable housing right now, here in Columbia County and around the world, but it’s important to keep in mind it’s not one thing. In Hudson, the only city in the county, the housing news generates headlines about financial support for multi-floor structures. Sometimes the story is what the rents will be and what subsidies the building’s owners will need. Sometimes it’s a question of: Who’s gonna pay rents like that?

There’s also the social status component. In the rural towns of Ancram and Kinderhook (and at opposite ends of the county) separate attempts to create upscale “glamping” facilities were foiled by local residents even though the facilities might eventually have created a few low and moderate income jobs.

In a way, this county, with a mere 60,000 residents, seems at times like a big social engineering experiment. A group of entrepreneurs recently toured the empty Roeliff Jansen School on Route 22 in Copake near the Town of Hillsdale line. What they learned was that only part of the old brick building can be saved.

So far the discussions are between landlords on one side and people who need help to find a rental unit they can afford. But what if there are people who prefer to own their home rather than rent one? What would happen if there were a way to give people a home and cut the landlords out of the deal?

The one place doing just that right now is Habitat for Humanity. There’s a chapter of the group right here in Columbia County. In its simplest terms Habitat finds local people willing and able to contribute to the work needed to build a sturdy private home; Habitat volunteers and the owner build the home together; the owner pays a mortgage at a rate she/he can afford. The mortgage from the new owner is used to build a new home for a “new new owner.”

Don’t worry about the landlords. They’ll still have the revenue from rents they’ll collect from tenants.

And the government? Each new owner is a bigger taxpayer.

Columbia Habitat for Humanity is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. And with that milestone it is expanding the number of homes the organization hopes to build. That won’t resolve the lack of affordable housing but it will set goals for years to come and strengthen the bonds of our communities.

I never did work on a Habitat house—good news for the owners–but for a short while I served on the board. Whatever you can do, Habitat can find a way for volunteers to help.

There’s more at

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