On Winchester, To Pioneer Or Not To Pioneer

Thomas MacMillan PhotoRachelle Johnson liked the floor plan at 653 Winchester Ave. and the big backyard. Her cousin Janell Johnson pointed out that 678 Winchester has a second unit she could rent out, and a washer/dryer hook-up on the third floor.

The two women debated the merits of the two properties for sale—and the question of whether to make a family move that could help turn around a blighted main stretch of Newhallville, battered by two rounds of foreclosures.

The Johnson cousins stopped by Winchester Avenue Wednesday afternoon with four kids in tow to look at three properties newly on the market thanks to the work of Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS).

The not-for-profit builder gutted and completely renovated the historic homes as part of an intensive effort to salvage a neighborhood slammed by a housing double-whammy.

First, the real estate bubble burst five years ago and a foreclosure crisis swept neighborhoods like Newhallville. Speculators swooped in to capitalize (in some cases illegally, using the properties to steal mortgage money). Then a second bubble burst as many of those speculators bailed, leaving a trail of boarded-up homes in their wake. The area has also dealt with a problem bar. And threats prompted an earlier would-be pioneer to flee her Habitat For Humanity home. Habitat suspended plans in that area; the house the woman left remains vacant.

In response, NHS head Jim Paley last year began an ambitious push to bring the area back from the edge with what he’s calling a “cluster” approach.

The idea is that it doesn’t help to buy, fix up, and re-sell one house at a time. If the homes around it are abandoned and in disrepair, property values will still languish and no one will want to move in to the neighborhood and community. So NHS, which is in the business of rehabbing homes and selling them to families with low incomes, has been buying groups of distressed houses in clusters. See background about the Winchester effort here.

On Wednesday afternoon NHS held an open house to celebrate the completion of the first cluster: three houses on Winchester Avenue between Lilac and Ivy streets. Shortly before 5 p.m. Paley stood at the corner of Lilac and Winchester near an “open house” sign with balloons in front of 678 Winchester Ave.

Paley said NHS sank $410,000 into renovating the duplex, freshly painted with a tasteful, three-color paint job. The asking price is $185,000, he said. The organization can afford to set that price thanks to a range of state and federal subsidies and tax credits, Paley said. For instance, 678 Winchester is part of the U.S. Repeating Arms National Historic District, which allows for tax subsidies.

The other two houses in the cluster are at 653 and 664 Winchester. Paley said NHS is gearing up for similar work nearby on three other clusters of several houses each—on West Division, at Starr and Newhall, and just up the block at Winchester and Bassett.

The houses at 678 and 664 Winchester were gutted in 2009 with the help of the Hillhouse High School football team. Everything in them is brand new, he said. “The idea is not to saddle people with the threat of expensive repairs.”

Moments later, Rachelle Johnson showed up with her three kids and entered the house for a look around.

“I heard there was cookies here,” her son whispered as he crossed the threshold into the carpeted first-floor apartment. He found them on a platter in the kitchen.

Johnson and her family concluded the front bedroom on the first floor is a bit small.

“But I like the cabinets,” said Janell Johnson, who arrived with her daughter.

The two women and four kids climbed the back staircase, and were more impressed by the upstairs apartment, especially the third-floor, with skylights.

“This is beautiful!” Janell (at left in photo) exclaimed. “Up here is nice!”

The family found their way back outside and set out for the other open house, at 653 Winchester. Someone has already put a deposit down on the brick-fronted 664 Winchester.

Rachelle (at right in photo above) said she heard about the NHS program from a co-worker at the Agency on Aging. She said she’s looking to move out of her rental on Elm Street.

As she and her cousin looked around 653 Winchester Ave., local Alderwoman Alfreda Edwards emerged from 678 Winchester.

“I think it’s excellent,” she said of NHS’ efforts. The fixed-up houses will “clean up the image of the neighborhood” and help property values go up,” she said. “Now we just got to get someone to buy them.”

After touring 653 Winchester, a $150,000 one-family house, Rachelle wasn’t totally sure she will be that person. She said she liked the layout at 653 Winchester, and wasn’t bothered—as her cousin was—by the lack of closet space.

Rachelle said she might apply with NHS to begin the purchase process on one of the homes, but she wasn’t sure. “I’m still debating.”

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posted by: taishalee on July 21, 2011  12:08pm

Wow, 160k for a single family home in Newhallville? sounds like a lot in this distressed economy and housing market. That would put the mortgage at about $1200 to $14oo per month with taxes & insurance….even with a low interest rate you would need excellent credit and a good income to qulify for this mortgage! good luck!

posted by: NH Resident on July 21, 2011  12:47pm

160k is actually pretty reasonable. You get 4 bedrooms, 3 baths and almost 1800 sf of space, not to mention NEW interior everything. And, unlike taishalee suggests, the monthly payment will be well under $1000. Assuming the buyer puts 5% down, the monthly payment will be around $850, plus taxes and insurance. That’s a good deal!

posted by: Jim Paley on July 21, 2011  1:07pm

Actually, the price of 653 Winchester Avenue was a typo…it’s actually $150,000.  And that’s for 1,750 sq. ft. of living space!

posted by: Yaakov on July 21, 2011  1:54pm

With NHS houses you have the peace of mind of knowing what you’re getting. 

Generally speaking, every bit of the wiring is new. Every bit of the plumbing is new. Every bit of everything is new. My wife and I own a NHS house. When we were shopping around, yes, we could have paid a bit less up front for a non-NHS house, but we likely would have had to pay for a new roof a few years later, to fix the plumbing a few years after tat, fix the electrical a while after that.  Maybe the water heater breaks after that. Maybe it’s the furnace, next.

I can’t say enough good things about the NHS houses and the quality of workmanship that they put into them.  We’re in a 100+ year old house, and yet, almost two years after moving in, all we’ve had to do is replace a light bulb.

Thank you, NHS, for all that you do for our city and its residents.

posted by: nfjanette on July 21, 2011  3:18pm

$150,000 with a 3% down payment at current mortgage rates would seem to be a monthly payment below $800 not including various insurance and fee costs.  The unknown variable would be the tax valuation of the property after improvements.  For every $100,000 of assessed value, there will be $4,390 (2009 grand list mill rate) in yearly taxes - $366 monthly.  So, $1,100 - $1,200 does not seem like an unreasonable guess for the monthly cost of the property with taxes at $100k assessment.  A higher assessment would push the monthly cost up.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on July 21, 2011  6:59pm

Besides renovating houses, NHS also offers weekly classes for home-owners, tenants, and residents that help people finance mortgages, maintain their house, make repairs to their house, and provides tips with operating tools.

I’ve been inside each of these buildings and they are really great renovations with all new fixtures, cabinets, counters and new flooring in places where the original wood couldn’t be refinished. 664 Winchester is a very unique building because the added-on brick storefront was maintained but turned into a living room on the ground floor.

These properties are an enormous bargain, especially the houses with rental units, since the tenant’s rent can supplement the monthly mortgage payments and drastically lower the costs of owning a nice, large house. The homeownership classes that NHS offers also helps when a homeowner has a tenant for the first time and repairs need to be made occassionally.

On another note, perhaps in addition to looking into homebuyer’s programs or tax breaks for city employees, a municipal historic rehab tax credit could be implemented to supplement the State and Federal programs, which are unfortunately quite modest.

posted by: Just don't on July 21, 2011  8:42pm

Just don’t buy next to The Taurus Cafe. They’ll run you out, just like they did the poor lady who got the habitat for humanity house.

posted by: where's my sub-prime morgage?! on July 22, 2011  6:31pm

you can’t even get a mortgage without 20% down these days

posted by: Jim Paley on July 23, 2011  1:25pm

Homebuyers who work with our HomeOwnership Center are able to get excellent low-interest, fixed-rate mortgages with less than 20% down.  Call (203) 777-6925 ext. 26 to learn about our next orientation, at which time all your options will be explained.

posted by: Alan Felder on July 24, 2011  5:02pm

NHHS how many Black men from NewHallville worked on your houses? or did you contract to a Caucasian contractor who do not employ Blacks, but have illegal immigrants doing the work that we Americans do not want to do? The population rate in NewHallville is 95% Black.

“Every house built by a black man is the strong tower against the allied hosts of Prejudice”  Booker T. Washington

posted by: NH Resident Doer on July 25, 2011  9:36am

Why is it that every something positive happens in New Haven, like homes being renovated and made affordable, that ‘someone’ has only one thing to comment on ... that being ‘how many black when were hired for that project?’ instead of griping about a problem that you claim is centuries old, why not come up with a right now solution? Many times, OUR problem (black New Haven resident) is that we carry this mentality that someone owes us something, or as long as we can blame someone else past injustices for our current lack, WE don’t actually have to ‘DO’ anything. Start your own company of skilled and semi-skilled licensed and insured tradesman, put your bids in, take the jobs that no one else will take for less than your competition, and build a reputation of excellence and service, and make it happen for yourself. Stop waiting for someone to ‘give’ you a job and ‘go get it’. Go to the NHS office and make an appointment to speak to Jim Paley, and find out who he uses and why… then go there (or send your brothers there if they are qualified!!!) Create your solutions!!!

posted by: Im Just Sayin on July 25, 2011  9:49am

...I am a 1st time homebuyer in New Haven who has reached out first to Black contractors to work on my home (carpenter, plumber, electrician ...) and have not found them all to be qualified AND reliable. If a man expects to be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin, then it is imperative that the man build his character, his qualifications, his reputation. And not wear or bear his skin color as cross, a burden or a stumbling block. Good work NHS - thanks for investing in the community!!!

posted by: Jim Paley on July 25, 2011  11:47am

Alan, of the four houses we completed recently in Newhallville, two were done by an African-
American general contractor, who also did a considerable amount of work on a third house.  This African-American contractor lives in Newhallville and has worked for Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven for many years.  I believe that most, if not all, of his workers and subcontractors are also African-American.  In addition, all of NHS’ paving work on all four of these houses was done by an African-American contractor.  In the aggregate, more than $365,000 of construction contracts went to an African-American contractor who lives in Newhallville, which is considerably more than went to any other contractor.

Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven has been working diligently to integrate our workforce in all the neighborhoods in which we work and to provide employment opportunities to neighborhood residents who have the requisite skills.