Empowering Neighbors – Heart of the City’s Stephanie Simeon

Thursday, May 19, 2011- The Good Neighborhood
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By Megan Callahan

This week’s Empowering Neighbor is Heart of the City Neighborhoods Executive Director, Stephanie Simeon. A transplant from Brooklyn who made Buffalo home after receiving both her undergraduate and graduate degree from the University of Buffalo, she holds a masters degree in urban planning, with a specialty in urban management. Stephanie did her initial post-grad work at Gloria Parks Community Center, which then led her to HOCN, a not-for-profit corporation “dedicated to creating programs that improve the quality of residential housing and developing sustainable projects to support Buffalo’s Lower West Side.”

Next Saturday is HOCN’s second annual kickball FUNdraiser – for which The Good Neighborhood is hosting Free Henry & Aqueous vs ALL, two hype-up shows this Friday & Saturday at Pearl Street Brewery – and starting in June they’ll be hosting their “Building a Movement Film Series” at Allandale Theatre.

Can you talk to me about the HOPE home ownership program?

I think that the gist that we want to get out to public about this program is that home ownership can be very cumbersome and we offer support for that. When you are a first time homebuyer, we have a home buyer education program, and we encourage people to go enroll in this.

But one of the perks of buying a home from us is that in addition to offering homebuyer education, we want to make sure we promote long-term affordability. That’s our specialty at HOC – it’s about affordable housing. When we rehab the homes, we eliminate the high cost of home ownership by making sure that when we do the rehab we do the work for some of the highest-cost items, such as the roof and the furnace. Usually, when you buy a home, within a few years or so you’ll be hit with some of these costs. When you buy a home from HOC, you have at least 10-15 years that you can go without needing your windows, a roof, or a furnace.

The ultimate goal is to provide an environment where people want to stay in the community. They want to stay in these homes, and one of the ways they can do this is if we can eliminate some of the costliness of home ownership. Even some of the people who own their homes, this is helpful to them. We have a lot of our community anchors, as we call them, some of them have been living in the community for 20-30 years. And although they’ve been able to withstand some of the changes that the city goes through, these Victorians are very costly to keep up. And if you’re on a fixed income, that $30,000 to do a new roof is unheard of, but you don’t want to be living in a home that costs you too much to live in or isn’t safe. We are trying to make sure we can continue to emphasize long-term affordability.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job right now?

I am a creative person and I’ve been really blessed to have a job that I get paid for something that I am really passionate about. And there isn’t one specific thing that puts fire back in my belly. I think it’s a combination of being in an environment where I have a great board of directors that support my creativity and some of the direction I’d like to take the organization in. I’ve been awarded with some of best staff in Buffalo. I can have these ideas and they fill in the blanks on them and we can actually see things happen. One of the most rewarding, is in fact seeing the change, because it doesn’t really happen overnight. But actually driving into the neighborhood, or walking around it – when you are starting to see things happen, you can’t put a value on that, but it really is amazing.

Tell us about the upcoming film series.

I’m really excited. Between the kickball and this, I am really excited for HOC for the summer. This is a great venue for all of us as residents – people of Buffalo, whether you’re in the lower west side or not. Just to talk about issues facing the community, and to have it a beautiful venue such as Allendale Theater, and to use these films as a way to promote open dialogue on gentrification, refugee resettlement, to public health concerns – the list goes on. We are going to cover five topical areas. We are going to see what the director was thinking, and then afterwards have a moderated discussion around the film and what people thought. We’ll have some experts from the area talking about it. And I’m pretty sure there isn’t just one issue that’s covered in this film that is not something pertinent that Buffalo is facing.

Let’s talk about Kickball!

It’s our annual fundraiser. And what I’m really excited about with this event, and I’ve been with the organization for four years – we aren’t one of the groups that have a traditional gala or dinner every year that raises a certain amount of money. We wanted to have a fundraiser and really emphasize the first three letters – FUN. We want people to have a great time, we want to utilize major assets in the community, and it’s a great event to kick off the summer. And you don’t need any specific talent. All you need to do is kick a ball. It’s easy, it’s simple and I’m really glad about this organization that what we do is family-oriented. So you can bring your roommates, you can bring your kids, or bring your dog. And it’s a great day to be out in the early part of June. Whatever money we raise will allow us to continue to provide the critical programming in the Lower West Side of Buffalo.

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