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"R.I.P" is scrawled across the boarded-up house on Bissell Avenue, just off Genesee Street.

Next door, more graffiti adorns the front porch -- but a dumpster outside the front door and new windows and siding attest to the reclamation under way inside.

Habitat for Humanity of Buffalo's 137th home should be ready for occupancy in January or February -- right around the time the group celebrates its 20th anniversary, and two years after it was named Habitat's affiliate of the year in the Northeast.

"Last year, Buffalo was the biggest builder in the Northeast outside of New York City," said Susan Dunn-Lisuzzo, Habitat for Humanity International's regional communications director.

Habitat Buffalo has just had a growth spurt: Completed projects have jumped from eight in 1999 to 16 in each of the last two years.

"That's very impressive, and even more so in that they are all volunteer," Dunn-Lisuzzo said.

Those most impressed are Habitat homeowners like Diana Quintana and Ignacio Malave, who moved into their newly renovated South Buffalo home last year with their two children, Adrianna and Carlos.

Like more than a few Habitat families, they are new to the United States, coming to Buffalo from Puerto Rico five years ago.

"We lived in a rental apartment," Diana Quintana said. "They told me for the same amount I was paying in rent, I could own a house."

Over two years, the family put more than 1,000 hours of sweat equity into various Habitat projects, including their new home.

"I love the house," Quintana said. "It's a beautiful deal."

Habitat "looks like a very simple business on the outside," said Habitat Buffalo president Ron Talboys, as he took a break from installing a new furnace in the Bissell Avenue home. "It's not as simple as it seems."

Habitat for Humanity, founded as a nondenominational Christian housing ministry, bills itself as a partnership between families who need houses and volunteers who believe every family should have a decent, affordable home.

Low-income families put 500 hours of sweat equity into Habitat projects, helping remove debris, install carpet and hang drywall.

In exchange, Habitat marshals volunteer labor to either build or renovate a home at no profit in the family's desired neighborhood and holds a no-interest loan to help the new owners finance the purchase.

But while the concept may seem straightforward, in reality it's a complex process.

Structurally sound homes must be acquired at little or no cost. Financing and insurance must be secured. Volunteers must be recruited and coordinated. Business partnerships need to be developed. Families must be selected and educated about maintaining their new asset. Supplies must be bought. Building codes must be met.

"You're a banker, a contractor and a counselor," said Talboys, a retired mechanical engineer who first became involved in Habitat through his church. "We're really interested in partnerships with people. In the process, we do houses."

The partnership with families in need is perhaps the most pivotal. Talboys said Habitat looks for people who could not obtain a conventional mortgage but who could afford low-cost housing and who are willing to work.

Many are first-time homeowners, and Habitat has an extensive counseling program to help them understand the ins and outs of maintaining a house.

"In my case, we knew nothing about the furnace and the things we need here for the winter weather," Quintana said. "We learned about those things."

She also learned a number of home repair skills. Habitat volunteers like Kathy Clarke of East Amherst said learning those skills is one of the side benefits of being involved.

"They always save the electrical stuff for me," said Clarke, a tool belt slung around her waist at a site on Hoyt Street. "I love doing it. It gives you a feeling that a woman can do just about everything."

Talboys said Habitat Buffalo has a mailing list of about 6,000 people, half of whom provide some volunteer labor. Many are retired, like crew chief Bob Henderson and his wife, Norma, who both worked at the University at Buffalo.

The Hendersons said they are rewarded the day a house is dedicated and a family moves in. "I see families that are tearful because they're so full of joy for having their own, simple, clean house," Bob Henderson said.

Many of those familiar with Habitat's success in Buffalo point to Ron Talboys and his wife, Margaret, the group's treasurer, who have been involved with the organization since its founding in 1985.

Habitat International recognized that work when it named the Talboys regional and national volunteers of the year for 2003.

"They are truly committed to meeting the need in Buffalo, and you need that kind of passion and vision to accomplish the goal," said Dunn-Lisuzzo.

"We are blessed," Talboys said. "Western New York and Buffalo is a very caring community."

Karen Bray would second that. A cook with the city schools, she said she's "very excited" about moving into the home on Bissell Avenue, despite the fact that some "people tried to talk me out of it because of the neighborhood."

The fact that Habitat hopes to renovate three properties on the street, including the one next door, makes Bray believe her block is on the rebound. "It's a decent street," she said. "They're trying to weed out the bad seed and make this neighborhood better."

Demand for the homes remains strong: 20 families have completed the required obligations to receive a new home, and 40 more are working on meeting the requirements.

Talboys said Habitat Buffalo is "consciously planning" to expand its operations even more, possibly by hiring a staff person.

"It's not our intent to say 16 (houses completed a year) is a nice number, that's it," he said. "We feel driven. We feel the spirit in us and we're going to do what we can."


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