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Co-op dwellers pile up nest eggs Housing program provides incentives to accumulate funds for buying homes

The family from Burma, the single mother from Puerto Rico and the Trinidad native make an unlikely West Side triumvirate.

They live in a three-family co-op rehabilitated and owned by PUSH Buffalo, a housing advocacy group active on the West Side. The living spaces are intended as transitional housing, helping tenants gather the resources needed to buy homes in the neighborhood.

To further that goal, tenants pay below-market rent and have $75 a month set aside in a federal First Home Club home-buying program.

For 18 months, M&T Bank, the program's administrator, matches the grant on a 3-to-1 basis. The tenant then is required to buy a home and finance it through M&T.

"This is a wonderful opportunity and a privilege," said Augustine Gilchrist, who moved to Buffalo a year ago from New York City. "There are a lot of people who need help, who need a start."

Dashmily Noriega and her 4-year-old son, Jahdil; and Zaw Win; his wife, Myo Khing; and their daughter, Sara Yud Maung, also live in the building at 19th Street and Massachusetts Avenue.

"The idea of building these co-ops is to allow community members access to equity but, more importantly, create community in a place where people don't often come together because they're [reluctant] to go outdoors due to gunshots or gangs," said Kirk Laubenstein, PUSH's cooperative coordinator.

"It's a way to give the power back to the community," he said.

PUSH Buffalo recently acquired 129 Chenango St., which it is rehabilitating into a second planned co-op.

Noriega, who for five years traveled frequently between her native Puerto Rico, Buffalo and Florida, said she was grateful to PUSH for enabling her to leave a distressed apartment on the Lower West Side.

"It was much worse there. This is better, much better. I don't have roaches, and the area is better," Noriega said. "They help me, and they help the community."

The tenants practice cooperative living, meeting monthly to discuss home improvements, gardening and other issues. They also work on neighborhood-building projects. At their June 24 meeting, they discussed purchasing a security system with a $1,200 fund set up by PUSH to support such efforts.

Plans call for a communal space for sorting out groceries bought in bulk and to house laundry facilities and a computer with Internet access.

"[The meetings have] been a good experience because when we're together we explain our needs and what's going on in the community," Noriega said.

Gilchrist said PUSH helped her get out of a bad rental situation shortly after she moved to Buffalo. Now a board member, she appreciates the co-op arrangement.

"We live here like you would live anywhere else -- we live independently. And we bring issues to the table and discuss them," she said.

Gilchrist, who has a sister in Toronto, decided to move to Buffalo after searching the Internet and coming upon the city's affordable housing market. Her father visits Toronto from Trinidad annually, so being able to see both family members more often was an added incentive.

She holds two part-time jobs, as a research interviewer at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and as a counselor for breast-feeding mothers.

Win, who was a political prisoner in Burma for four years during the early 1990s after being sentenced to hard labor, said he also was grateful to be in the apartment. On a wall is a picture of revolutionary icon Che Guevara and a banner with a fighting peacock -- the same as his tattoo. It is the logo of an anti-government organization to which he belongs.

Win packs books at the Harlequin Distribution Center on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga, while his wife is employed at a garment business on the East Side.

Adjustment, he said, has been difficult since arriving in the United States two years ago from a Thai refugee camp.

Being so far from the ongoing struggle against the military dictatorship that rules his country has been difficult. The junta -- which is widely accused of human-rights abuses -- changed the country's name to Myanmar from Burma, although Win and other dissidents, and many countries, including the United States government, don't recognize it.

But Win is conflicted because his daughter has opportunities in the United States that are not available in Burma.

"Being here is only for [myself and my family]," said Win, wearing a T-shirt that read "Stop Military Invasion in Burma."

"I want to help other people," he said.


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