A sea of people wearing hard hats and carrying hammers crowded a small lot on Vail Avenue in Riverside on a crisp day in mid-October, ready for an all-too-rare tradition that may soon be a more common occurrence on the East End — the raising of the first wall of a Habitat for Humanity home.

This was the third of what is expected to be five Habitat homes in Riverside, built in partnership with the Southampton Town Housing Authority on lots that had previously been foreclosed on by the county for non-payment of taxes. 

But this type of homebuilding is just one example of work that local government representatives are hoping to support with funding from a .5 percent real estate transfer tax that would be set up in four of the five East End towns if a proposition on the back of this November’s ballot passes.

While it has taken years to lay down the tracks so the wheels of government and non-profits can push these heavy projects to completion, it has taken just as many years of personal struggle for many local people to finally achieve the dream of owning the roof over their head.

New Habitat homeowner Christina Reyes (second from right), with (l-r) niece Jeanna Sosa Rodriguez, son Erick Trent, and daughters Julianna and Victoria Maldonado are just a few local people who are working hard to find a true home.

The new owner of this Habitat home, Christina Rivas, has known that struggle for decades now. 

A single mother of four who works in the Department of Social Services’ Medicaid office in Riverhead, she has also taken in nieces and nephews over the years as they’ve needed help. 

“It has been a struggle. This is something I’ve wanted for many years, and it’s something I promised my kids,” she said, as she watched volunteers prepare the first wall for raising. “I’m happy, excited and I want to cry.”

Ms. Rivas, who lives with three of her four children in a small apartment in the Wildwood neighborhood of Northampton, had been living in a shelter after leaving an abusive relationship 15 years ago when a case manager first told her about Habitat for Humanity, but at the time her family didn’t meet the qualifications necessary for a Habitat mortgage. 

Habitat homeowners put 300 hours of sweat equity into the construction of their homes, and must qualify for a 30-year mortgage at 2 percent interest, but must also earn less than 60 percent of the area median income. Habitat for Humanity lends the money, and puts the interest back into its homebuilding program.

Ms. Rivas meets Southampton Housing Authority Chair Bonnie Cannon at the wall-raising.

A decade and a half later, last November, Ms. Rivas bumped into her former case manager, who told her that the Habitat list was again open and she had just a week to get on it. 

“This time I was ready,” said Ms. Rivas. “This is my time, for my kids. The last four years, I’ve pulled out of a big debt and built my credit. I’m financially stable, but I’ve struggled a lot. All my friends and co-workers are rooting for me.”

Ms. Rivas had temporary custody of her four nieces at the time she filled out the application, which almost disqualified her from buying the home because she had too many dependents. But, just in time, their mother was able to take them back, allowing Ms. Rivas to qualify for the home.

One of her nieces, Jeanna Sosa Rodriguez, was with the family helping with the wall raising. She said she admired her aunt for helping her mom while all the while working to help their whole family’s housing situation become more stable.

Ms. Rivas’s daughter, Julianna Maldonado, 13, said her mother had been storing away furnishings for their new home in their basement for years, in the hopes of one day having a place to put them. Her son, Erick Trent, 18 was also ready to get to work.

“I’m happy to help and support,” he said.

Habitat for Humanity Long Island Executive Director Lee Silberman was on hand for the build, along with a work crew of Riverhead Building Supply employees — RBS, which has a long relationship with Habitat, is the sponsor of this house.

Mr. Silberman said it’s a “little more challenging” to get volunteers to help build houses on the East End, in part because the organization’s volunteer base is mostly farther west. Habitat is also in the midst of building a house in Greenport and is looking for volunteers there. He said volunteers can sign up through the “Volunteer” button at habitatliny.org.

New homeowner Christina Rivas helps to raise the first wall of her new home

“This is the proud time,” said Southampton Housing Authority Director Curtis Highsmith after helping to raise the first wall. “I get desperate calls every day form people looking for a place to live, and this makes what we do worthwhile. I don’t think people realize how much work goes into this process.”

Mr. Highsmith said the properties the Housing Authority receives through the county tax programs often have title issues, and are also often non-conforming lots that may have once had a structure on them, as well as buried septic systems or utilities.

“There’s so much predevelopment that goes into this,” he said.

Mr. Highsmith said that, currently, local non-profits and housing authorities have to seek federal or state funding to build affordable housing, which means they not only have to adhere to the guidelines of those funding programs, but they also end up pushed to build higher density housing developments in order to make their projects economically viable.

If the Community Housing Fund passes, he said, it will give agencies like his “another funding source to keep the number of units lower,” and to build more single family homes owned by the homeowner, like those that Habitat builds.

“This is a way to keep density down,” he said. “Construction costs have tripled since I started with the Housing Authority. Habitat had to go through various means to keep their costs low.”

—BHY

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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