The bedroom isn’t in the basement anymore. A dining room is still missing a table and chairs. Only the ghosts of her parents live on the first floor. But for Robyn Handy, 944 Sherman Ave. is home twice over — and now it’s hers.
With the help of Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), Handy is the new owner of the single-family house at the corner of Sherman Avenue and Elizabeth Street, close to the Hamden border.
The recipient of a $150,000 “priority markets” grant from Wells Fargo, the property is one of 40 in Newhallville that NHS is trying to recoup and move new, largely first-time homebuyers into by December 2018. Among 28 that are already finished, this is one of the first on Sherman, placed to show “a neighborhood that’s on its way up,” NHS Director Jim Paley said at a Wednesday ribbon cutting at the house.
Last sold for $140,000 in 2005, the home was foreclosed upon at some point in the last three years, and then donated to NHS by Wells Fargo. Because it was built in 1956, it didn’t qualify for grants designated for historic properties, like many of Newhallville’s turn-of-the-century homes. Instead, NHS turned to other sources to rehabilitate the house: funds from the Capital for Change, city’s lead paint abatement program, Wells Fargo LIFT down payment assistance program, tax credit subsidy from the state. When the house was ready to go on the market: NHS got a surprise: the prospective homebuyer had seen the house before. Many, many times before.
Handy first moved into 944 Sherman 42 years ago, as a freshman in high school. It was her family’s “movin’ on up” house, she said — the first place her parents could afford as they left Brookside Avenue projects for a multi-bedroom home, with a dining room table sandwiched in the front of the house where extended family members came to eat, drink and tell stories, and family dinners went late into the night. It was the house where she was accepted into Mt. Ida college, tearing the acceptance letter open so pieces of the envelope curled on the hard wood floors. And the place where her parents told her, before she set off for college, that she was going to do great things with the education she earned there.
“We were so happy as a family here,” she recalled.
Except Handy’s father seemed fatigued as she went off to college, three years into the family’s ownership of the house. Unbeknown to her, he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and was losing the battle with his treatment. She suspected something was going on: She would call home, and no one would pick up. When she returned home for Thanksgiving, he was thin, and quiet. He urged her to return and finish classes for the semester. Instead, after just a few days back, she returned home, and started taking shifts with her mother in the hospital.
On the night of Dec. 5, she sat beside him as he took his final breath. Then she returned to 944 Sherman and got more bad news. Her mother couldn’t afford to have a child in college and a mortgage. She was choosing the former.
“I begged her, ‘No, mommy, no, don’t sell the house,’” she recalled, tears rolling down her cheeks as she stood in the basement corner where her bedroom once stood. “I loved this house. We spent our last days as a family here.”
Handy moved on, finishing college and ultimately becoming a behavioral technician at ACES, where she scored the job in education that she had long wanted. 18 years after her father died, her mother joined him, and Handy thought about the house once more. She moved into a fixer-upper on Ellsworth Avenue with her young daughters Darian and Rojonna. But about eight years ago, she started praying for a new house, that didn’t require so much maintenance. A chance encounter with Stephen Cremin-Endes, NHS director of community building and organizing, led to some late-night scrolling through NHS’s listings.
When 944 Sherman appeared on the page, she gasped. Handy is a devout Christian; this felt like divine intervention, she said. And then she started making calls.
It was, at that point, “still a hot mess,” she said. The house had been abandoned and then completely gutted, and nothing was quite as she remembered. She wasn’t sure that she would be able to afford it, and started taking courses in financial literacy from NHS. She studied up on renovations. Working with Bridgette Russell, director of NHS’s homeownership program, she realized that she could do it.
“I know that God has directed me to neighborhood housing services,” she said. “This is where God wanted me to be—I thank him for his favor, his grace, and his mercy. This is the last place where my parents were alive and happy.”
Now she is just days away from moving in, as the sales closes and she finishes renovations on the basement. She’s turning it back into the home she remembers: a light-soaked dining room will look out onto the street, where the sounds of the neighborhood float through four windows and she envisions lots of new family dinners. Her parents’ old bedroom will become hers; she said she still feels their presence and gets teary-eyed walking in there, recalling nights that she would curl up beside her father when he was sick, and try to reassure him. An adjacent room, once her mother’s office, will become her prayer room and storage space. In the basement, where a lock her mother still installed still sits on the wall, she plans to build a bedroom for Darian, an honors student at Co-Op High School. That, she said, feels like coming full circle: Darian is a freshman, the same age she was when she moved in.
From changing toilet paper rolls to planning meals in the new kitchen, Handy said every action grounds her. As Donald Morris, an NHS board member and Handy’s pastor at Life Kingdom Outreach Ministry, blessed the house and streetcorner, she struggled to hold back tears, and then smiled wide, lifting her face towards the bright blue sky.
“I know my mom and dad are looking down right now and having a holy ghost party in heaven,” she said. Then she cut a taut red ribbon ted across the front porch, and walked inside.