Building A Future For Family, And A Neighborhood: First Affordable Housing Project Underway In Riverside - 27 East

Residence / Neighborhood / 1886969

Building A Future For Family, And A Neighborhood: First Affordable Housing Project Underway In Riverside

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Homeowner Sahlise Cherry with two of her children– Jamiya and Jason.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry with two of her children– Jamiya and Jason. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry and her daughter Jamiya.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry and her daughter Jamiya. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry and her daughter Jamiya.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry and her daughter Jamiya. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry with two of her children– Jamiya and Jason.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry with two of her children– Jamiya and Jason. DANA SHAW

Tommy John Schiavoni, Bonnie Cannon and Curtis Highsmith at the Habitat site.  DANA SHAW

Tommy John Schiavoni, Bonnie Cannon and Curtis Highsmith at the Habitat site. DANA SHAW

Bonnie Cannon with homeowner Sahlise Cherry with two of her children Jamiya and Jason.  DANA SHAW

Bonnie Cannon with homeowner Sahlise Cherry with two of her children Jamiya and Jason. DANA SHAW

Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director Lee Silberman with Curtis Highsmith,  the Housing Authority’s executive director.   DANA SHAW

Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director Lee Silberman with Curtis Highsmith,  the Housing Authority’s executive director. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry  raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry  raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry  raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry  raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers. DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry  raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.  DANA SHAW

Homeowner Sahlise Cherry raises a wall of her house with Habitat for Humanity volunteers. DANA SHAW

Kitty Merrill on Feb 15, 2022

Typically gregarious and vivacious, Southampton Town Housing Authority Chairwoman Bonnie Michelle Cannon was speechless for a moment last Thursday when she arrived at the construction site in Riverside, where she saw three familiar faces standing at the edge of the property of their future home.

Sahlise Cherry and her children had been keeping a secret from their longtime friend — that they were the recipients of one of five new, affordable, single-family homes between Old Quogue Road and Vail Avenue, built in partnership with the Southampton Housing Authority and Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk.

“I could see her tearing up and I was tearing up,” Cherry said of Cannon. “They say it takes a village — and she’s my village.”

Cherry, who was born and raised in Bridgehampton, lives in a cramped basement in her father’s house with two of her four children — Jason, who is 26, and 12-year-old Jamiya. They were all frequent visitors of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreation Center where Cannon — who wears more than one community advocacy hat — is the executive director and Jamiya still attends.

“You didn’t tell me!” Cannon exclaimed to Jamiya, unable to contain her surprise, as the young girl smiled sheepishly.

Jamiya is too young to actually work on the home — Habitat for Humanity requires builders to be at least 16 years old — so she watched on the sidelines as staff and volunteers started to build the Cherry family’s new, and first-ever, house.

“It was unbelievable for her,” Cherry said during a telephone interview the next day, reflecting on the start of construction, adding, “We will each have our own room with our own private space. Best of all, we will be able to have dinners in our dining room and relax and enjoy time together in our living room.”

Winning the opportunity to buy the house was “a dream come true,” Cherry said, which she learned about while working as an assistant manager at East End Disabilities Associates. She took a chance and decided to apply — and was selected from dozens of candidates.

Judging from the incredulity playing across her face as she watched several dozen builders use her future front yard as a staging area, it’s still hard for her to believe that she got it. That morning, it was unseasonably warm for February — crystal-clear skies dusted with powder puff clouds under a strong sun. The air was still, buzzing with joyful anticipation as the workers stepped onto the foundation slab.

Site supervisor Ryan Parsons held sway as the team lined up along what would become the first wall. Studs attached to a beam laid on the foundation slab. “When I count one, two, three, bend with your legs and lift waist height,” he directed.

Together they lifted the frame. Next, acting as one, they slid it to the edge of the foundation. One more lift and the wall was vertical. “Hug a stud” was the next instruction, prompting half of the line to hold the studs as the other half dropped to a knee and nailed the wall in.

Jason Cherry, described by his mom as “very shy,” joined his mother for the second wall. Together, they helped secure it on the foundation — both serious at work, she handing nails to her son.

“I was so proud of him,” Cherry said on Friday. A range of emotions had scrolled across her face the day before — concern as he started to hammer, then relief and no small measure of bliss as they completed the task.

Next month, another family will be the central figures of a wall raising right next door, its foundation already visible across the muddy job site. By the time the neighborhood’s metamorphosis is complete in June 2024, there will be five new houses — and five new families — in the community.

“We’ll have transformed the entire block,” Lee Silberman, who is the chief executive officer and executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, said while standing on the boards that will, one day soon, be the floor of the Cherry family’s house. “We use God’s love to help us build communities and hope.”

The houses aren’t free, he emphasized, speaking on the myth that Habitat for Humanity gives away houses. Would-be homeowners are income-qualified and are required to put in 300 hours of “sweat equity,” by working on their own homes, as their down payment.

“Home is more than just a structure,” Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said. “It’s a place for family, it’s a part of a community. This is Riverside and we’re working on building this community.” The lawmaker, carrying a builder’s triangle and worn tool belt, symbolically struck a plank of wood with his hammer as he expressed thanks to the varied entities involved.

Habitat houses benefit from predominantly donated materials and manpower. Riverhead Building Supply, which is a full sponsor of the Riverside homes, has fostered a years-long collaboration with Habitat — and its president, John Callahan, couldn’t begin to guess how many homes they have sponsored in total.

“Our business is homes,” he said. “Their business is homes, so we work very well together.”

“We couldn’t do what we do without sponsors like Riverhead Building Supply,” Silberman added.

Each homeowner will sign on for a 30-year mortgage with 2 percent interest, as Habitat holds a second mortgage on the homes. It costs the organization about $250,000 to build a house on Long Island, Silberman said during a November groundbreaking ceremony for the houses on Old Quogue Road. He predicted that in eight to 10 months, Cherry will be sitting in a room full of lawyers, signing papers and becoming the proud homeowner. Between the mortgage, taxes and insurance, the cost of the house is designed to meet the threshold of 30 percent of her income.

While sweat equity, a low mortgage rate and generous material and labor donations take care of the house, the single-largest impediment that Habitat faces in addressing the need for affordable housing on Long Island is the sheer paucity and cost of land.

“How can you do it when land prices are so high?” Curtis Highsmith, the Housing Authority’s executive director, asked rhetorically.

But in the case of this project, the land for these five houses cost just $1.

The five parcels were part of Suffolk County’s 72-H program, which takes land that was seized for delinquent taxes and offers it to municipalities to create affordable housing opportunities. Noting that the county supports efforts to create affordable housing for its residents, Sidney Joyner, director of real estate for Suffolk County, encouraged those present to express support for funding the 72-H program to their legislators in order to help families like the Cherrys.

“This is a testament to what community really means,” Cannon said, adding, “This family has been with me for years. The kids have grown up there. It warms my heart to know the family that gets this house …”

She paused. “This is how we work together and make things happen,” she said.

Highsmith recalled a lunch with Silberman in 2019 when they discussed their vision and plan for the neighborhood. The COVID-19 pandemic interfered, though, and put some work on hold. Still, he said, “We didn’t give up and here we are standing on a solid foundation.”

Turning to Cherry, he said, “We look forward to this community transitioning, and it starts with you.”

While Callahan marveled at the patience Habitat professionals have with their amateur volunteers, construction supervisor Chris McNamee — who has worked with Habitat since 2010 — said, “It’s amazing to work with people who come out to help people they don’t know and will probably never even see again.”

When McNamee spoke of the most rewarding aspect of the job, she looked over at the volunteers hammering — in particular Cherry bent down, wielding a hammer, her frown of concentration broken by a smile of delirious disbelief — she noted the lasting impact the construction of a home can have on a parent, on her children, on a community.

“Everything you do during your day is permanent,” she said. “This isn’t just for this family. This is for generations.”

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