By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette —
The not-for-profit group that is working to turn vacant, city owned homes into working classrooms and then into homes for low-income Niagara Falls residents just got a major boost from the John R. Oishei Foundation.
The Isaiah 61 Project, the faith-based organization that is providing job training and affordable housing for city residents, was recently awarded a $200,000 Oishei Foundation grant to help the group get off the ground.
Jim Haid, the organization's founder, brought his idea to the city earlier this year and the group bought its first house on Whitney Avenue in December. The organization has partnered with Orleans Niagara BOCES and eight students who have started their semesters learning the basics of home repair in preparation for class time to be spent repairing the house. The students - who will earn certificates from the school if they complete the 400-hour training course - could begin work on Whitney Avenue this week if all the necessary permits fall into place.
Haid said seeing the students in action has been encouraging.
"The students are very committed to the program," Haid said. "It's very exciting to see."
Haid said the foundation's financial backing - and the confidence that the foundation's reputation brings along with it - helps to ensure a sound future for his organization.
"That really is going to solidify us going into the future," Haid said. "For them to be backing us and what we're doing here in the Falls is just a God send for us."
The vote of confidence from the area's largest private foundation will help the Isaiah 61 Project secure funding from other foundations and government entities down the road, Haid said.
"With their great reputation and their commitment to the community, we'll be able to piggy back off of that," Haid said.
Once the house is ready for tenants - whatever repairs cannot be done by students will be done through the generosity of local contractors. Once the renovation work is completed, the organization will look to sell the home to low-income residents who qualify.
Niagara Falls based Mikelly Construction has offered to help the organization with the repairs that fall outside of the skill set of the students.
Haid said he is confident the organization will be able to offer a typical Niagara Falls home for less than $35,000 on average.
"The mortgage would work out to be about $350 a month, less than most people pay in rent," Haid said.
Larry Cook II, a senior program officer for the John R. Oishei Foundation, said the collaborative nature of the project was particularly appealing to the foundation and its board.
"The fact that [Haid] had partnerships and was looking to grow these partners was very intriguing to us," Cook said.
The project addresses several issues in the city, making it a very worthy recipient of the foundation's backing, Cook said.
"We try to have the most impact where there is the greatest need," Cook said.
Seth Piccirillo, director of the city's Department of Community Development, said he has been working with Haid to develop a plan that will make it easier to identify houses that are good candidates for the organization. With the help of the city's legal department, the organization and community cevelopment have started to compile a list of homes to be approved by the city's planning board. This would allow the organization to move forward with projects without any bureaucratic red tape standing in the way.
"I don't want there to be any gaps," Piccirillo said. "If they have students who want to learn, I want it to be on to the next house. I want to clear all of those roadblocks before hand."
Piccirillo said the organization has a strong plan that will benefit from its focus on the neighborhood surrounding the Destination Life Fellowship Church on 22nd Street where Haid is a minister.
"Just like in the old days they're building around their parish, basically," Picirillo said. "They're focusing on their neighborhood."