If you’ve spent time in Albany, there’s a chance that you’ve noticed a bright red ‘X’ on multiple buildings. Albany has a lot of homes that are currently vacant, dilapidated, and not up to safety codes. Seeing all of those properties that have great potential, you can’t help but to dream of all the possibilities, to think of it’s potential to be transformed into adequate housing or become multi-purpose centers for our community…
Changing the Landscape of Homeownership
Outside of the possibility you’re also faced with what is: that the presence of those abandoned homes indicate that there are more unhoused neighbors than you think. Furthermore it begs the question what does affordable housing actually look like in CapNY.
While no one person has all the answers, we do have a bevy of individuals of all ages and groups committed to finding solutions. Leadership is not a one-size fits all endeavor, it does not have a particular look and feel. There are more and more young people in CapNY who are taking up the mantle to be actors of change. It’s important to believe in the power of younger generations. These millennials are changing the landscape of homeownership and what it means to have housing in our region.
Meet Virginia Rawlins, President and CEO of Building Blocks Together (BBT), an organization dedicated to the education of Black and Brown potential homeowners. The 31-year-old Bronx native started out as a Housing Services Counselor at the Albany County Land Bank but then realized that members of the community had a lot of misconceptions about the home buying process.
“Working at the Land Bank I realized that people didn’t know the basic home buying process. They were excited [to receive grants] for the $5,000 houses, but they didn’t know which legal documents to submit to the bank had they gone the traditional route.” Seeing that disconnect, Rawlins founded Building Blocks Together as a way to bridge that gap. Founded in 2018, BBT is equal parts a consulting and advocacy group which holds workshops and helps connect members of the community with funding opportunities. In addition to the creation of BBT, Rawlins works with the Touhey Foundation and their Restorative Justice fund, which gives African-American homebuyers up to $10,000 to purchase a home in CapNY.
“I wanted to be a connector. I think everyone can agree that the opportunities for affordable home ownership for minorities are present with entities like the Land Bank and the Land Trust in the area. However some of these organizations that are not Black-led don’t have the resources or have the same sense of care to do community outreach in the way that Black people would.”
Working for the community and being of the community is a distinction that Virginia is keenly aware of. It can mean the difference between feeling seen, heard and understood and condescension. It can also be a barrier to beginning the endeavor of home ownership. It is due to this understanding that various housing groups have welcomed Virginia’s presence with open arms. Virginia has been lifted up by Albany’s housing community and has created long lasting connections.
Ultimately Virginia Rawlins is passionate about the work she does because she believes that everyone is entitled to own a home and build a deeper connection to the community around them.
If you’d like to buy a home but don’t know where to start check out Virginia and Building Blocks Together’s upcoming engagements:
1. Restorative Housing Justice Fund Information Session: The purpose of this information session is to answer any questions you may have as a: Potential homeowner, Mortgage Lender, Real Estate Agent, Real Estate Attorney, Underwriter
2. #TogetherTuesday: Workshop Series will cover a range of topics that will educate homebuyers, homeowners, and real estate investors.
Meet Josh Koss, General Counsel for The Vecino Group, a multidimensional collective dedicated to creating “lasting and socially-impactful” work. Before relocating to Troy, Josh practiced law at a real estate law firm in NY helping close $3 billion worth of deals while there but he wanted something a bit more “hands on.” After gaining his broker’s license, he fell in love with the area and began his journey with the Vecino Group. The 29-year-old lawyer’s work is centered on affordable housing within the region.
The Vecino Group works in tandem with social programs such as Asteri, a supportive community for persons with developmental and physical challenges based in Utica, to provide housing. The Vecino Group owns and operates over $700 million dollars of affordable housing development across this country, and owns 4 properties in Upstate NY.
Josh believes that there is more to housing than availability and affordability, “The supportive housing aspect is important to what we do. We’ve partnered with daycares, CVS to distribute vaccines, among other things in the community. It’s based on this notion that it’s important to deliver not just affordable housing but high quality affordable housing to people of all different income levels and social statuses. We believe that if we can help people capitalize on the benefits that come with that– better education, better support for mental and physical health– then we’re doing a small part in the world to make our communities a better place.”
Being housed is a basic need that drastically alters our course in life. It is the foundation from which our faculties grow. Josh understands that people not only have a right to shelter but a right to quality of life. To even begin to approach social equity, we need well rounded responses to the inequalities that plague our communities.
Josh is ultimately passionate about this work because it simply feels good. “I think that human beings were meant to feel good about doing good work. I look for work that makes me feel good. If I’m doing that and I’m helping the people around me, then it’s a good day.” Being able to achieve goals with like-minded individuals is what keeps Josh going. Upon moving here he knew one person, now he knows 100. Josh feels that there are great people in this area dedicated to this work.
Ray Turner & Kim Wallace
Last but certainly not least are the founding partners of the Wallace Turner Law Firm, Ray Turner and Kim Wallace. Their main areas of practice are real estate, business and personal injury, and estate planning.
Ray Turner initially went to undergrad for theater and dance but when personal tragedy struck she wanted to figure out what she could do to take control of her life, so she enrolled in law school. A move that proved to be life changing. Ray worked in the public defender’s office for a while but still felt that she wasn’t creating the change that she had hoped in her community, “I had an epiphany. I was helping people but it wasn’t long lasting. I thought, ‘How can I make an impact and help people?’ I need to open up a law firm. CapNY needs to see a law firm that looks like them. What services do we need to offer? We need to offer home ownership because that’s going to create generational wealth. It was about how I can help people establish themselves further.”
Ray’s approach to community building moves beyond the initial moment of gaining housing, instead figuring out ways for Black and Brown communities to retain their homes and businesses and turn them into assets that can be passed down to their children. Having a law firm that reflects the community and a firm that the community trusts is an invaluable asset. Ray and Kim find that more often than not clients come to them because of who they are and how they can relate to them. People find comfort in seeing people like them.
What motivates Ray and Kim most is knowing that they are presenting members of our community that often don’t get the representation they deserve. Moving forward they aim to expand their business to become a full service law firm, hire from inside the community, and to grow as a practice.
Written by: Arielle Steele
Arielle is a local writer who has a passion for community, film, dance, and Beyoncé. When she is not working at Ayco, she can be found working on her next film project or trying out a new hairstyle.