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Habitat helps break the cycle of poverty

The population for the City of Buffalo has declined by 55 percent since 1950. The southern edge of Buffalo's Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood recorded the biggest decline in Erie County. Over the past decade, this census tract has lost 47 percent of its population. Fewer than 2,300 residents remain, and many feel forgotten and forsaken. Last year, Buffalo recorded the highest vacancy rate in the state at 15.7 percent.

I remember a vibrant Buffalo from the 1950s. As a Habitat for Humanity Buffalo volunteer, I supervise contractors who dig the basements of our new builds on the city's East Side, currently on Fox and Guilford streets in the Broadway-Fillmore area. Every Habitat new build begins with a solid basement foundation on which to build a simple, decent, Energy Star house with a prequalified low-income family, who must put in 500 hours of sweat equity. One family member watched the entire digging process and at the end of the day remarked, "It is the most beautiful hole I have ever seen. My house will be built on it!"

The careful foundation measurements that I do benefit the volunteer builders who will put care and compassion in every nail, every step of the way. Most of all, I want the family to have a strong foundation for their house for years to come as their family is raised in the security of owning their own home.

I know from studies at Ohio State University that the impacts of home ownership are profound. Home ownership helps break the cycle of poverty because there are long-term benefits for children. Habitat children have better cognitive outcomes and fewer behavior problems. Math scores are 9 percent higher and reading scores are 7 percent higher than the norm. There is a 3 percent reduction in behavior problems. The longer one owns a home, the greater the effect. These children achieve a higher level of education after leaving home. They are more likely to become homeowners themselves. Often, the health of the Habitat family members improves because they are living in a clean environment without asbestos, lead paint or mold.

In the past 25 years, the Buffalo affiliate of Habitat for Humanity has built 215 houses. Habitat has built 66 percent of its houses on the East Side. Habitat has invested $2.6 million in 45 new Habitat houses, on six streets, in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. Where there were vacant lots and abandoned houses, there are now Habitat homeowners, paying property taxes each year.

I have worked with Buffalo's Division of Real Estate in acquiring city-owned building lots and developed a long-range plan for new Habitat houses in the Fillmore District. Over the next five years, Habitat is planning on building 15 to 20 new houses in this area. James Comerford, commissioner of Permits and Inspections, helped Habitat get abandoned houses demolished on Fox and Guilford, where Habitat has built 13 houses, making room for even more housing.

So often I read reports that nothing good is happening on the East Side. Yet I know from the basement up, houses are being built, families are settling in and neighborhoods are being rejuvenated with dedicated volunteers who want to be part of the dramatic change. It is fun to be part of this noble cause, literally from the ground up! At the time the house is dedicated, I have witnessed tears and words of gratitude and thanksgiving to God, the Habitat volunteers and all who helped to make this dream come true.

Tom Graham, of East Aurora, is a site selection volunteer and a volunteer board member of Habitat for Humanity Buffalo.

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