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There's no place like home; Lori Willoughby's dream of homeownership becomes a reality as she moves into house rehabbed by HomeFront

Owning a home had been a dream of Lori Willoughby's for a long time.

So on Friday when she was handed the keys to her two-story red house with tan trim on 19th Street, the dream had come true.

"It's real nice. I love it. I just think it's amazing," said Willoughby's 13-year-old daughter, Susan. "It's everything you can imagine."

A ceremony Friday morning marked the completion of the latest vacant home rehab project to transform two blocks of 19th Street on Buffalo's West Side.

The project is part of a three-year strategy by HomeFront Inc. to acquire, rehab and resell derelict homes that had been scheduled for demolition or were on the city's foreclosure list.

Willoughby's house, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, is the last of five houses to be completed under Phase I. Two others have been sold, and two more are under sales contracts.

Four additional homes are set for completion by the end of this year under Phase II. And HomeFront is securing funding to begin the third phase to rehab five more homes.

"It's targeted investment rather than spreading it citywide and having little impact," said John Murphy, HomeFront's executive director.

"A specific targeted area will have a huge impact," he added. "It takes [homes] off the foreclosure list. Once they're sold, they are fully assessed. It brings property values up in the neighborhood."

A first-time homeowner, Willoughby had tried to buy a home before, but would begin to feel "overwhelmed, nervous, scared" by the process and give up, she said.

This time, her daughters kept up the encouragement. And with their support, Willoughby stuck with the homebuying and homeownership courses and she eventually qualified for a mortgage.

"I'm proud of my mom. I knew she could do it. She knew she could do it," said Susan, an eighth-grader at Buffalo United Charter School.

A Buffalo native, Willoughby works at Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled on Genesee Street and part time as a crossing guard.

A former resident of Rapin Place and Box Street on the East Side, she said that when she saw the 19th Street property, she knew immediately it was the home for her, even though it was still under construction. Only the drywall was up.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Marshell, also had a good feeling about it. The first positive sign was the kitchen.

"My mother cooks all the time," said Marshell, a student at Bryant & Stratton College studying criminal justice.

The second thing that was attractive to them was the two bathrooms. Third, the space itself was welcoming.

"It was just a happy place to be in," Marshell said.

The three "huge" bedrooms helped, too.

Willoughby has not decided yet how she will decorate her bedroom, but she knows exactly what she's going to do her first night in her new home.

"I'm going to put my bed in there and take a nice, hot bath, wait for the next day and see if it's for real," she said.

Funding for the project comes from federal stimulus money from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and from New York State and City of Buffalo HOME dollars.

Also attending Friday's ceremony were Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo; Niagara Council Member David Rivera; Michael Clarke, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation; and Emma Watson from the Buffalo office of NYS Homes and Community Renewal.