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Building futures for people

If Arthur Woodward seems oblivious to the repetitive tapping of a hammer outside his office door, he can probably be forgiven. The sound of the mundane office repairs-fixing a broken door or building shelves-is as common to the 58-year-old as music to a conductor or the chatter of a police scanner to a dispatcher. It is part of the job.
Woodward, executive director of Flower City Habitat for Humanity Inc., has overseen the construction of scores of houses in Rochester during 15 years at the helm of the organization. He has taken a fledging organization struggling to keep up with the cost of building houses to the brink of rebuilding an entire city neighborhood.
Born and raised in England, Woodward moved to the United States with his wife, Lucia French, as she pursued academic posts around the country. When the couple settled in Rochester in 1984 after she accepted a position at the University of Rochester, Woodward found work with non-profit organizations in grant administration and funding.
When Habitat for Humanity created its executive director position, Woodward thought it was a good match for his skills and took an immediate interest. It is a Christian organization, and Woodward is a devout Christian, attending Immanuel Baptist Church on Park Avenue.
When he took the job, beating out more than 200 applicants, Woodward joined an organization almost entirely led by volunteers. One of his first tasks was to create a more rigid structure and make changes to ensure better cost accounting.
“It was a very weak organization, and at the time we built about 40 houses and had issues of quality control and homeowners being dissatisfied with their houses,” Woodward says. “So my job for about the first seven years was to try to manage that and sort of start at the core of what the problems were.”
As better accounting measures came into use, he positioned the organization to balance all of its roles-as construction company, mortgage lender, social service organization and volunteer agency. Habitat for Humanity grew into an organization with 13 employees and a host of volunteers, but the focus has remained squarely on the families it serves.
“Working with the families and getting to know them has always been the most satisfying part of the job,” Woodward says. “As we’ve grown, my role has changed a bit and gotten more complex, and I don’t really get to know the new families as well as I would like. That is an inevitable development but sort of sad.”
The clients are low-income families without housing stability, often moving from apartment to apartment. Because most work in service jobs and have no real chance to improve their income, they would never be able to afford a house through traditional means, Woodward says. Habitat for Humanity gives them the stability of a home, which in turn stabilizes neighborhoods.
They are not simply chosen for their income and given a home, however. They must earn it through sweat equity, spending 250 hours working on Habitat for Humanity projects before they can move into their own home.
Once they do move in, other services are offered to ensure their financial stability. Some, such as a class to teach basic home repairs, are administered by Habitat for Humanity itself. Others are provided through partnerships with social service organizations, such as an opportunity to purchase a home computer for $100 through Micrecycle.
Homeowners form strong bonds with volunteers and Habitat for Humanity staff members, Woodward says. They spend 20 years connected with the organization while repaying their mortgages, and in that time Woodward sees the profound impact of home ownership on their lives.
He recalls walking through the halls of Rochester General Hospital to visit a homeowner when he saw a woman he recognized stepping off the elevator. The woman, another homeowner, had been employed in food service when her family first moved into its home, but by that time she was working to become a nurse.
“That is just one example of someone who has taken advantage of the confidence they get through this program,” Woodward says. “They all have this support behind them now, and they have a better chance to take advantage of the things that are there.”
Woodward’s ability to find creative approaches has helped the organization immensely as it moves forward, says Mussette Castle, a member of the organization’s board of directors. This creativity ensures that not one bit of the money the community has invested into Habitat for Humanity goes to waste, she says.
“He is always willing to accept and listen to different ideas,” Castle says. “This organization will always be vibrant and alive, because he doesn’t get stuck in one place.”
Though the duties of the organization can be demanding, Woodward says he is also protective of the time he spends with his family. He is an avid reader and enjoys gardening at his Penfield home. But as his duties shift and more free time opens up, Woodward says he is looking forward to playing a more active role in advocating for the organization.
“I may not be seen as much as people might want me to be, but I’ve got to protect my time,” he says. “That may be changing a bit, and I’ll be out and about more so I can educate people about Habitat and what we’re about.”

Business connections

Throughout its history, Habitat for Humanity has been handcuffed financially by its governing charter, Woodward says. The organization has roughly $4 million in assets-the mortgages-but because they are sold to homeowners at zero percent interest, Habitat for Humanity in essence sits on the assets, unable to use them.
To bring in money needed to construct houses, Habitat for Humanity relies on sponsorships from churches and corporations, which amounted to $700,000 of the $1.8 million in revenue the organization reported for its fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2007. Grants and fundraising brought in an additional $330,000.
“Because of the charter we are limited to building about seven to 10 houses a year, and we have a capacity at this point without changing anything in terms of our organizational structure to build about 15 houses a year,” Woodward says. “We’re hoping to somehow leverage the assets we have and are working with a few organizations to see if we can’t do that.”
In the past the organization did not seek out or accept government funding, but Woodward says it now can, as long as that does not become the bulk of its revenue. It also relies on grants from foundations and infrastructure grants from the city of Rochester, which help to pay for water and sewer hookups. To bridge gaps between sponsorship and the true costs of building, Habitat for Humanity is funded through a federally chartered wholesale bank.
To expand its funding streams, Habitat for Humanity recently opened a secondhand store for housing and renovation supplies. Habitat ReStore sells donated products such as kitchen cabinets that may have otherwise gone to a landfill, and the surplus revenue goes toward building more houses.
Woodward says the Rochester branch is somewhat of a Johnny-come-lately to the retail segment, which has been a revenue staple of branches in the South.
“It’s a very successful operation,” Woodward says. “As soon as we get something, it goes.”
Woodward also reaches out to the local business community, focusing on small to midsize companies. In the summer, Habitat for Humanity holds a program that brings small-business owners and executives to work on a site, introducing them to the organization and giving them a chance to see its impact firsthand.
“That is a very important segment for us to access, because they are the up-and-coming,” Woodward says. “It’s a great chance to educate people about what we’re about and have them work with the home-owners.”
It was through the summer leadership build that Russell Bullock, CEO of Erdman Anthony and Associates Inc., first came to know Habitat for Humanity more than a decade ago. He was contacted through Habitat for Humanity’s corporate advisory outreach board and spent one week building during the summer. He later became a board member and worked on the corporate outreach board. He also joined a coalition of engineering and architectural firms to fund a house.
“The idea is once you reach out to businesses, hopefully if your business is big enough you might be able to fund a house,” Bullock says. “The price tag is about $75,000 just to build the house, and some firms can’t do something like that but might be able to get a group together to do something every two to three years.”
But Woodward knows that in a difficult business climate, donors need better evidence of the program’s success than the warm feelings that come with house dedications. The organization recently completed a study that looked at homeowners’ civic engagement and access to health care and financial institutions compared with similar populations.
“We found remarkable differences between our families and comparable populations,” Woodward says. “We know that their kids graduate from high school and go on to trade schools and MCC, and I think that suggests that Habitat has an effect.
“Having a house does have an effect, and it’s strongly suggested that we often have a profound influence on those families.”

JOSANA Project

For the most part, Habitat for Humanity’s work in Rochester has been what Woodward refers to as cluster development, a concentration of projects within a given neighborhood. But the organization is embarking on a larger-scale project to restore a neighborhood adjacent to Paetec Park that has been plagued by dilapidated housing and reported open-air drug markets.
On the wall in Woodward’s office hangs a map of the neighborhood, dubbed JOSANA for Jay Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association. Parcels on the map are shaded to show vacant houses or lots. Roughly one-third of the 24-block neighborhood is shaded.
“I was personally shocked when I went into the neighborhood and saw that every single block has evidence of blight to one extent or another,” Woodward says. “The people there feel very neglected because politicians have promised over the years that help is coming, and there has been some, but no radical infusion of money or houses.”
Woodward says it takes an organization like Habitat for Humanity, with discretion about where to build, to bring real change, although Habitat is by no means going it alone in JOSANA. The city of Rochester is working on the project, along with the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and others. Woodward says the 100 or so planned houses will create momentum for a neighborhood with some of the city’s worst rates of crime and poverty and a high danger of lead poisoning.
Besides addressing the needs of the neighborhood, the project can help the city make a better impression on visitors, since the eastern edge of the neighborhood faces Paetec Park, Woodward notes.
“We are particularly excited about this project, because if you can build houses, you can build a community,” Woodward says. “That doesn’t mean we’re meeting the other needs of the community, which is why the other partnerships will be great as well. We plan on being there several years and are happy to be there.”
Castle says Habitat for Humanity homes tend to bring improvement to an entire neighborhood. This not only leads to more engaged citizens and vibrant neighborhoods and but also gives the city an economic boost, she says.
“When our houses go up, you can see the streets turn around and the people there make communities,” Castle says. “We put tax money back on the rolls, and when they own a house, people get a different feeling than when they’re renting.”
Entering a new neighborhood can bring trepidation for Habitat for Humanity employees and volunteers, Woodward says. They can be unsure about what reaction they will get and whether their supplies or houses could be robbed or vandalized. But the community response is nearly universal, as it has been for early interactions in JOSANA.
“We always have to learn every single time we move into a new neighborhood that the people are just like you and me. They’re good people,” Woodward says. “They are the only ones who have stayed and stayed the course and waited for help to come to the neighborhood.”
When Habitat began to work in JOSANA, neighbors showed their appreciation by bringing the volunteers water and looking after the houses.
“I think to an extent it really surprises and shocks the neighbors, who think, ‘Is this real?'” Woodward says. “It takes them a while to realize it is.”
rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

03/06/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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