WATERTOWN — Michael Larrabee and his 13-year-old daughter Bria finally settled down to some homemade lasagna on the first night in their South Pleasant Street home last Saturday night.
It was a meal he had imagined they would have had a year ago. Finally, they moved into their two-bedroom home at 443 S. Pleasant St., in a quiet neighborhood consisting of similar homes on the city’s south side.
Mr. Larrabee was the first person to be selected for the Thousand Islands Area Habitat for Humanity’s home ownership program through the city’s $1 million antipoverty grant.
Last year, Habitat for Humanity officials promised him that they’d be able to move in a year ago August. It’s been an ordeal, he said.
Despite the delays, it feels good to finally be living in his first home.
“It’s coming together,” he said.
He’s proud of the decor he’s picked out for the nearly 120-year-old house, although he acknowledges it still needs some work.
Sitting at a retro 1940s dinette table that he found in a local antique shop for $136, he talked about what he’s gone through to get to this moment — a milestone he and his daughter could only dream of.
His wife abandoned him and his daughter in 2014, taking everything they owned. The two have struggled to find a place to call home. At one point, they jumped from couch to couch, or sometimes stayed in his car.
Coming from those experiences made his wait to move from his small apartment in Brownville into a place of their own even more of a struggle.
But he’s turned his life around. He’s got a job in the city’s Department of Public Works and recently received a promotion to light equipment operator.
“I just want to be the best dad and the best employee I can be,” he said.
He took off a day from work Tuesday to do some unpacking and get his daughter’s room ready.
It’s nearing two years since Mr. Larrabee was notified that he was eligible for the first house through Habitat for Humanity’s Pathway to Home Ownership program, which was awarded $300,000 through the city’s Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative program.
Working with the Development Authority of the North Country, Neighbors of Watertown and the city of Watertown, homes were purchased in distressed areas, rehabilitated and then sold to low-income families.
But the delays with Mr. Larrabee’s home were caused by issues getting financing together, said Amanda L. LeDesma, executive director of Habitat for Humanity.
When he first became involved in the program, Habitat officials gave him a purchase price of $50,000. However, somewhere along the way, he was shocked to be told the price increased to $70,000.
He had an agreement, and it suddenly changed. So he want to the state Attorney General to file a complaint.
He took a letter from Brian R. Drappo — the executive director for Habitat who he had been dealing with but who then abruptly left the organization — that confirmed the $50,000 price.
With the help of the A.G.’s office, the parties agreed that Mr. Larrabee would have a $74,500 mortgage but would receive a $20,000 grant from Neighbors of Watertown, in exchange for a list of repairs that would be completed by subcontractors, Mr. Larrabee said. But he also must pay back the $20,000.
Hired by Neighbors, the subcontractors were brought in to get what ended up to be more work on the house than had been anticipated, Ms. LeDesma said.
With the price going up, financing continued to be an issue, he said. In the end, Neighbors actually purchased the house and then sold it to him, said Reginald J. Schweitzer, Neighbors’ executive director.
“Neighbors really stepped up. If it weren’t for Neighbors, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” Mr. Larrabee said.
The work entailed completely gutting the second floor, creating two new bathrooms, putting in new fixtures, repairing the roof and redoing mechanical systems. In addition, Mr. Larrabee ended up making major improvements to the kitchen, redoing the hardwood floors and repainting the walls.
Thanks to Neighbors, he has a new refrigerator but has to figure out what to do about getting a stove because only the burners work, Mr. Larrabee said. He also needs to replace the cellar stairs because they are unsafe.
“I’ve got some work to do,” he said.
Ms. LeDesma, who was not involved in the project at its beginning, said Habitat went through a learning curve in its involvement in the ESPRI housing program.
While the project was stalled, Habitat also was going through some administrative issues, with four different executive directors during a 7-month period, she said.
At the beginning, volunteers were going to be more involved in the work but that changed when the repairs needed more expertise than what they were capable of doing, she said.
Still, Habitat contributed 266 hours of volunteer labor and donated materials to Mr. Larrabee’s home, she said.
“It was a unique challenge,” she said.
Mr. Schweitzer said it was a much more complex project than had been imagined.
“Ultimately, everyone worked together to get a positive result for him,” he said.
The Pathway to Home Ownership is continuing to provide homes for first-time homeowners, Ms. LeDesma said. Habitat for Humanity planned to rehab six homes and sell them. However, some leftover funding is allowing the nonprofit organization to complete ten.
At this point, seven homes were closed on with people living in them and waiting for repairs to get done, Mr. Schweitzer said.
Three other homes also might be included in the program.
Sherrie L. Weise, 50, is one of those other first-time homeowners through the ESPRI program, which also includes helping people climb out of poverty, find a job and provide a vehicle to get to that job.
She and her 3-year-old black lab mix, Molly, moved into a century-old, three-bedroom house at 206 North Rutland St. this summer.
The program provided $65,000 to purchase the home and will pay for its repairs, which includes a new furnace and boiler, roof work, installing siding and 18 windows.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “You can live the American dream because of the program.”
It’s life-changing, she added.
Mr. Larrabee and his daughter are settling in their new home, too. Bria, an eighth-grader, is enrolled at Immaculate Heart Central School, where’s she on the soccer team and plans to play basketball in the winter.
In a few weeks, Mr. Larrabee plans to invite some friends over for a house-warming party, another milestone he could only imagine.