They met eight years ago at a Marine Corps combat center: Michael Roushion, 25, of Oakland, Calif., had served one tour of duty and was re-enlisting; Nicole Burnett, 18, newly graduated from Lincoln High School in Yonkers, was fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a Marine.
As Sergeant Roushion tells their story, it was love at first sight. The problem was that he and Corporal Burnett were awaiting deployment to Iraq.
Once there, they served in different parts of the country, keeping in touch by e-mail and phone, meeting when they could and planning for a future that seemed at best uncertain. But their story, unlike that of many others, had a happy ending. They returned safely, married and are now raising a family: Michael Jr., 3, and Kimora, 9 weeks old.
These days, they are also pursuing the increasingly elusive American dream of owning a home, although saving for a down payment is a tall order. Mr. Roushion, an electrician’s apprentice, and Ms. Roushion, who is applying to nursing school, pay $1,600 a month for a three-bedroom apartment in Yonkers.
But the picture brightened for them a few months ago, when the Westchester affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, one of 1,500 in the country, joined the parent organization’s campaign to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan become homeowners. Mr. and Mrs. Roushion never imagined they could afford a residence in Westchester, where the median price of a single-family home — about $500,000 — is among the highest in the nation.
Throughout the country, as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, Habitat is focusing on ways to support their transition, especially given the economic climate. According to the group: “More than 72,000 veterans spend at least half of their monthly income on rent. And as a result, home equity is out of their reach.”
In his New Rochelle office, Jim Killoran, the executive director of the Westchester affiliate, has earmarked six foreclosed homes in a downtrodden section of Yonkers to be among the first of about 20 to be renovated and sold to veterans like the Roushions.
The Westchester division, which operates on a $1.7 million annual budget for all of its projects, has already bought several of the homes for about $50,000 each from lending institutions, using donations from corporations like Cisco Systems, a global networking company in San Jose, Calif.; the Lanza Family Foundation in Harrison; and Silverstein Properties, the real estate firm rebuilding the World Trade Center.
Habitat will provide qualified veterans the mortgages — an estimated $175,000 each — interest-free with no down payment required. Under the terms of the sale, the house cannot be resold for 10 years.
Among the Yonkers properties that will probably be redone for returning veterans: a 2,400-square-foot house being converted to a two-family, and an abandoned three-bedroom colonial (vandals stole its copper plumbing months ago), which Mr. and Mrs. Roushion hope to move into within a year. They are to work alongside volunteers to rebuild the place, and to clear the brush obscuring views of the Hudson River and the New York City skyline. Mr. Killoran describes the houses as “diamonds in the rough.”
They are on the west side of Yonkers in a formerly industrial area of mostly run-down buildings, many of them abandoned and pockmarked by broken windows. There is scattered evidence of the new energy that Habitat for Humanity is infusing into the neighborhood: freshly painted buildings, tidy community gardens and, at street corners, wooden planters filled with spring flowers.
“You can’t just renovate a few houses and leave it at that,” Mr. Killoran said. “You have to bring up the whole neighborhood along with them.” Cisco has worked with more than 150 Habitat for Humanity groups worldwide and contributed more than $9 million to the organization’s various projects since 1998, said William DeKnatel, a Cisco client service director. In addition to money for construction, the company offers grants to provide Internet wiring for low-income families “who often have less access to information on the Web,” said Mr. DeKnatel, who works in Cisco’s Manhattan offices and lives in Westchester.
He met Mr. Killoran several years ago at a Sunday service at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in New Rochelle and has since recruited church congregants, members of his Boy Scout troop and clients to volunteer for Habitat in Westchester.
At Silverstein Properties, Marty Burger, who shares the chief executive post with Larry Silverstein, says he met Mr. Killoran three years ago when one of Mr. Burger’s sons expressed an interest in volunteering for the group.
Now Mr. Burger’s synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester in Rye, has become involved, its members installing kitchen cabinets, replacing door frames, windows and siding, and otherwise remaking substandard housing.
Also, subcontractors at the World Trade Center site, Mr. Burger said, have trucked in gravel, poured foundations and installed electrical circuitry for Habitat projects.
Mr. Burger described the burly 50-year-old Mr. Killoran, who has a master’s degree in divinity and says he believes in the “theology of the hammer,” as “a soldier who’s out there every week gathering troops from temples, mosques, churches and colleges.”