As I met with Sukema Cook on a cold Syracuse morning, I was reminded of a day in college that has always stood out for me. The day started completely ordinary. I met up with my good friend for some coffee and off we went to our Public Policy class, typical like any other day.
When class started, the professor abruptly stated, “Raise your hand if you want to win the lottery, and don’t lie, if you want to win the lottery, raise your hand.” My hand was probably the highest in the class. The entire class raised their hands, and my professor said, “You did, you were born in America!” The simplicity of this lesson has always stuck with me, and although the rest of the class was a great lecture on Educational Policy – I will never forget the importance of the lesson learned within the first few minutes of class.
At the time, I was a few months away from graduation. Everything on the news was about job loss, unemployment, and how it was the worst year to graduate and find a job in decades. For the rest of my last semester as an undergraduate, I thought about that day and my professor’s lesson, not about Educational Policy, but how he was reminding his students of the privilege and opportunities we have here in America.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with one of our newest home owners, Sukema Cook – and as my Professor and I would proclaim- won the lottery. Her story and path to homeownership shows that Syracuse Habitat for Humanity is helping all achieve the American Dream of homeownership. It was a pleasure having the chance to talk with Sukema as we met one morning after her son Nicolas went off to school and shortly before Sukema left for work.
Thanks to the Syracuse University Habitat for Humanity Chapter, Sukema became a home owner in 2009. The home construction was funded by the Syracuse University Chapter, raising all construction related costs. The students at Syracuse raise enough money yearly to build one home in Syracuse, and their commitment and dedication is an inspiration to all.
Born in New York City, Sukema’s road to homeownership is a testament to hard work, dedication, and a desire to provide for her son and family. Her only child is Nicolas, who is seven years old and currently is attending McKinley-Brighton Elementary.
Sukema explained that throughout the process of receiving a home through Habitat, she would try her best to explain to Nicolas what was about to happen to their lives. Nicolas turned 7 on October 29th, 2009 – celebrating in his home, with his own bedroom and space for all his toys. At first, the concept of homeownership was pushed aside by Nicolas, as he focused on the more important aspects of life for a child– like his toys, recess, and trying your best to convince your mother to let you stay up past your bedtime. On a certain day, Sukema says everything clicked with Nicolas, as he pointed to the home on Tully St and told his Mom, “That’s our house.”
Sukema moved to Syracuse about four years ago dreaming of homeownership. She worked steady jobs and was able to receive a transfer from her employer in New York City to work in Syracuse. She had always dreamed of owning a home, but stated “With my credit history and finances, I didn’t think it [owning a home] would ever happen; when I went to the Open Enrollment Night I had no idea about the screening process and what I needed to do to receive a home. In my family I am now the first homeowner of my generation.”
Not only is Sukema one of the first homeowners in her family, Sukema and Nicolas show the numerous benefits of homeownership. Based on a recent survey estimates by the American Community Survey, a single mothers’ likelihood of being in poverty in Syracuse exceeds 40%. Through their persistence and hard work, Sukema and Nicolas have beat the odds and show how Habitat for Humanity is fulfilling its mission of fighting poverty right here in Syracuse, by providing safe and affordable housing.
Receiving a Habitat Home is by no means an easy process. The process is competitive, time intensive, and requires strong commitment to our program from the very onset. Applications for homes are only accepted at our Open Enrollment Night, and typically we receive between 50-60 applications, with strict criteria who can qualify for a home. Syracuse Habitat is not a give away program. Some requirements for home ownership are that your income is 80% below HUD guidelines, currently living in substandard housing, you have the financial ability to pay a mortgage and you have a decent credit report.
Syracuse Habitat for Humanity “lends a hand up, not a hand out.” Through volunteer labor and donations of money and materials, Syracuse Habitat for Humanity homes are sold to partner families at no profit and are financed with no interest loans for 20 years. To ensure commitment, Syracuse Habitat for Humanity requires homeowners to invest 300 volunteer “sweat equity hours” in labor, as well as provide a $500.00 down payment. Our houses are sold at 0% interest; therefore the first mortgage payment begins to build equity and credit for families who would not otherwise qualify for a mortgage due to income level.
Homeownership is certainly a life changing event. Many of us are blessed with always having a roof over our head, a bed to sleep in, and a yard for our children to play in. Many of us have a big enough room to have Thanksgiving dinner and we can welcome our friends and family over for holidays and special events. For Sukema and her family, until recently this was not always the case. When she had heard she had been accepted to receive a Habitat Home, she says she had just gotten home from work, opened the letter, read the letter, re-read the letter and then as she stated, “I cried, cried and cried…and then cried some more, I think I was crying for two days.”
Finally, after living in apartments in the Bronx and Queens, moving into a shelter and eventually relocating to Syracuse, Sukema now has a place to certainly call home. “My home has given me space to breathe and relax, I can watch my son play with his toys, which are spread out all across the floor and across the house, the impact of homeownership has been a lot of little things that have made a huge impact for me and my son.”
Sukema has some family that made the move to Syracuse. Her mother and sister live locally, but she has numerous close friends who she considers family. This spring, when her good friend’s daughter graduates from High School, she will be hosting the Graduation Party. Once we get into the spring and summer months, Sukema anticipates hosting numerous barbeques and other family functions.
So next time you are asked if you want to win the lottery, after your emphatic “YES, of course!” just be sure to take a step back and remind yourself you already did.