Furnishing a Habitat to make it home

‘Tis the season for holiday cheer, and this story about a deserving family moving into a newly built home with beautiful donated furniture, just in time for the holidays, certainly fits the bill.

Habitat for Humanity built the home for the mother and her three children in Rocky Point. The cost to the homeowner: 250 hours of sweat equity in the construction, plus a 20-year, no-interest mortgage for about $70,000. Donated labor, materials and federal and state affordable-housing grants paid for the rest.

The furnishings, however, are the result of a new relationship between Habitat and a small business with a charitable heart on Long Island’s East End. The ClearingHouse, with stores in Southampton and Greenport, is donating the furniture for this house and others now under construction.

And its owners, James “Nick” Nicolino and Victoria Collette, say they hope this arrangement can serve as a model for philanthropy nationally.

The ClearingHouse sells high-end furniture and accessories at below-market prices on consignment for homeowners of nearby “fine homes and estates,” says Nicolino. It also receives numerous donations, from pricey settees to mundane household objects.

The high-value donations are sold at the ClearingHouse’s charitable No Place Like Home Foundation shop in Greenport to raise funds for its charitable operations (although, with charitable activities and expenses rising, ClearingHouse’s owners say they are looking for corporate sponsorships to help defray some of the costs of trucking, insurance, warehousing, sorting and staff.)

The rest – from sofas and lighting to mattresses and microwaves – is trucked to agencies with clients who can put it to use. The Retreat, the East End shelter from domestic violence, and the women and children who move on from there to apartments, get much of it, says Nicolino.

“We’ll pick up the table set, the blankets and couch and recycle them back into the community,” he says. “The need is unbelievable. We didn’t realize it ourselves until we started doing it.”

The Habitat for Humanity houses, says Nicolino, seemed like a natural fit, but surprisingly, he says, “no one has ever said we can consistently give you the furniture you need so you can furnish the houses as you build them. It’s a radically new concept.”

He says he and Collette, a designer, think this concept “could go national.” They belong to a national furniture bank, with a membership of 70 businesses, that recycles furniture into the communities in which they operate. “If we can do it here locally, then why can’t it be implemented across the country?”

Nicolino and Collette are working with Christine Baker, family services director for Middle Island-based Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk, which has built more than 110 houses in the county in the last 20 years. She’s enthusiastic about the new arrangement.

“I’m very psyched,” she says. “It’s very exciting, and I’m hoping this thing explodes. Maybe we could go worldwide.”

“Whatever we can do to help these low-income families is a good thing.”

The new owner of the Rocky Point house is Joannie Toro, 35, a school district employee who lived in a water-damaged apartment in Brentwood with her children, ages 6, 8 and 11, until Habitat moved them into transitional housing.

Under Habitat’s rules, families selected for houses agree to sweat equity of 250 hours of labor on their home and other Habitat houses, plus they agree to take out a 20-year, zero-percent interest mortgage of about $70,000 to pay for costs not covered by, in Toro’s case, $35,000 in state and federal affordable housing grants, and by donated labor and material.

Recently, Baker brought Toro to the ClearingHouse to give Collette an idea of what she and her kids liked.

“She was very shy about asking for anything; they’re overwhelmed that this is happening to them,” says Collette, who is busy choosing, rechoosing and stockpiling pieces for the new home. “She was very drawn to colorful things with flowers … She liked a yellow floral chintz sofa, and I have something very similar that just came in. Every time something new and better comes in, I save it for her.”

She adds, “She said she always wanted a table in back of the sofa to put pictures of her family, and I registered that in my mind … It’s like when the kids give you the Christmas list and you go out and find them, and they show up under the tree miraculously.”

In fact, the charity will donate everything from drapes to towels to a whitewashed armoire and captains’ beds.

Baker says in the past, families came to their new Habitat houses with old, usually insufficient furnishings and had to acquire and set up the rest. Not anymore.

“For everything to arrive instantly, it’s a wonderful gift,” Baker says. “I know the family is overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Story by Carol Polsky at carol.polsky@newsday.com

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