Housing project transforms neighborhood, lives

ROCHESTER — For a single mother of five children who is working by day and going to school at night, the opportunity to move into a newly built house has proven to her that hope is alive.

"Welcome to my house," Markitta Nesmith announced to the crowd of people gathered at her new home following a Nov. 23 ribbon-cutting ceremony for El Camino Estates.

The 25 single-family homes were built through a partnership between Ibero-American Development Corp. (IADC) and Rochester’s Cornerstone Group with funding and support from city, state and federal offices. It is part of a larger initiative that will include a pedestrian trail created by the Genesee Land Trust. Seven of the parcels will border the trail, which will run from Scrantom Street near St. Paul Boulevard and connect to Seneca Park. The trail will be completed in cooperation with city staff, according to IADC officials.

All of the houses were built on vacant lots on Conkey Avenue in the area bordered by Harris, Woodford and Nelson streets.

To complete a project like this and begin the transformation of this northeast neighborhood "it takes not only a large number of individuals and entities but also their belief and commitment … and vision," said Eugenio Marlin, IADC president. "Our work in this area is mission driven: to provide families with decent and affordable housing. That’s the key to stabilizing neighborhoods and the key to stabilizing families."

What Marlin says is true, said Eugenio Cotto Jr., executive director of Group 14621, a community advocacy organization that serves northeast Rochester.

"With this movement going on, homeowners are primarily taking ownership of their little area and making their properties look better," he said during an interview Dec. 3. "This is in hopes that we can instill this same type of behavior into landlords and tenants. … We’re going to find ways to do that."

All of the families that occupy the houses will initially pay rent — $550 for three bedrooms and $590 for four bedrooms — with the goal of eventually owning the homes, Marlin explained. IADC will help these families improve their credit so that they eventually can qualify for mortgages, he added. Already, 21 houses are occupied, officials said.

"We want them (the families) to stay right here," Marlin said. "El Camino is just a little piece of a bigger vision."

Mary Houchins, who recently moved into a house on Harris Street, said that the rent for the houses is affordable for city families.

"The day I moved into our new home was the beginning of a new life and a dream come true for me and my family," she added.

When the country fell into a recession, the $7.3 million project almost didn’t happen, Roger Brandt, president of Cornerstone, said on Nov. 23. But the federal government intervened by issuing $3.3 million in tax credits funded by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with financing from area banks and Richman Group Affordable Housing Corp. The project included new construction of 24 three- and four-bedroom houses by Atlas Builders and the rehabilitation of one existing home.

During last month’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter said that the federal funding for El Camino has not only increased affordable housing but also provided 400 jobs to Rochester-area residents. Replacing vacant lots with new houses will "make a difference in this neighborhood in the heart of the city," she added.

Already, Marlin said, nearby neighbors have begun making improvements on their own properties, including painting and landscaping.

"When you upgrade houses, it becomes contagious," he added. "That’s what we want."

El Camino Estates is a great start to transformation of the neighborhood, but it will require a communitywide effort to really change the negative perception of the area, Cotto noted. More importantly, Ibero has proven that private development — combined with municipal support — is possible and necessary to truly improve the quality of life for northeast Rochester, he added.

"We’re far from where we really want to be," Cotto remarked. "That’s a result of what’s going on there for decades. … But it’s getting better."

For Nesmith, the upgrade for her family was instantaneous. Their former apartment had many issues, including basement flooding, that the family often to contend with, she said. The El Camino project was one of the first developments in the state to achieve a gold performance level under the National Green Building Standard for increasing efficiency of energy and water use and construction materials. This also will help the families because their utility costs will be lower, Marlin added.

"I couldn’t ask for more," Nesmith said of her new two-story home, which she planned to move into the first week of December. "This is an awesome project."

She said that she had signed up for another Ibero program when she received information about the El Camino project. Nesmith noted that IADC staff held her hand through every step of the application process. Her children — who range in age from 2 to 16 — had not seen the house as of the ribbon-cutting date.

"This is a step up … for me," she remarked. "Hope really works."

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