COVER STORY: Building a Foundation: Syracuse Habitat for Humanity Women Build

Even as a child, Rina Di Francesco understood the importance of having a home of one’s own.

“My parents immigrated over from Italy with no money in their pockets, a couple of dollars,” Rina recalled. “But they worked hard, they saved and they were able to afford to buy a home. The pride that they always spoke with made me really realize how important affordable home ownership really is to people. That pride really can do a lot of things for people, take them to positive places.”

That understanding drove Rina to look into volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, a nationwide nonprofit that builds homes for disadvantaged people who qualify after a rigorous application process. There, she learned about the organization’s Women Build: a home-building enterprise primarily directed by women. They were looking to build a home later in 2019.

“I thought, ‘Perfect,” Rina said, and signed up immediately.

‘Women are capable of doing a lot more’

Rina is now the co-chair of Syracuse Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build committee. The committee is in the process of securing funding, selecting a family and narrowing down a site for their build, the first Women Build in the Syracuse area since 2014.

“A lot of what we do is catered to what the community wants. For many years we’ve had a very strong interfaith connection and an Interfaith Build,” said Michelle Salvagno, volunteer and family services coordinator for Syracuse Habitat for Humanity (SHFH). Some Veteran Builds are underway right now. “We’re really trying to have as many veteran organizations and veteran-owned businesses on site assisting us and volunteering their time, and also making sure that home goes directly to a veteran homeowner.”

Now, Michelle said, the community wants a Women Build.

“I think the time is right for it,” she said. “We’re seeing more women step up and say, ‘We want to be able to do what we’ve been told we can’t.’”

While men and non-binary individuals are welcome at the sites, Women Build projects use workforces made up predominantly of women. Women who volunteer at traditional Habitat sites often find themselves consigned to tasks like painting, landscaping and cleanup while men take on the more traditional construction roles. Those women, according to SHFH’s website, don’t tend to volunteer again.

Rina, who manages commercial real estate and has “flipped” a few houses, has found that to be the case herself.

“When I flipped [houses] it was always with men,” she said. “I just recently did a couple with some business partners that I have who are men and that was always the same thing — I was relegated to the landscaping, the painting, choosing the appliances. So I thought, ‘You know what? Women are capable of doing a lot more.’”

The build also presented an opportunity to help other women.

“Poverty strikes women and children disproportionately, especially in the Syracuse area,” Rina said, “so I thought it would be a great way to do both things — empower myself and learn to do things beyond painting and landscaping, yet help a family break that cycle of poverty.”

The feminization of poverty

Recently released U.S. Census data has once again placed Syracuse near the top of the list of U.S. cities with the highest poverty rates. In fact, while overall poverty rates in the country went down, poverty in Syracuse increased: we moved from 13th poorest in the nation to 10th. Syracuse now has the highest poverty rates among New York cities with a population over 65,000, with 32.4 percent of residents living under the federal poverty level (income of $24,944 a year for a family of four).

And according to the data, women and children are more likely to live in poverty. CNY Vitals, a website run by the Central New York Community Foundation that has compiled Census data on education, income, demographics, housing and more for all five counties that comprise Central New York, has the numbers to prove it.

“Data based on age and gender in the city of Syracuse and all five Central New York counties [Onondaga, Oswego, Madison, Cortland and Cayuga] reflect the ‘feminization of poverty’ or the phenomenon that women disproportionally make up the face of poverty,” the website reads. “Women ages 18 to 34 living in Central New York experience the highest likelihoods of poverty with 22 percent of women living below the threshold compared to 14 percent of men. And over time, more women than men live in poverty in all five counties and across all age groups.”

Over the five counties, anywhere from 53 to 62 percent of residents living below the poverty line were female as of 2016.

These numbers fall in line with national data: according to the National Women’s Law Center, women are 35 percent more likely to live in poverty than men, and 35.8 percent of households led by single women exist below the poverty line.

And while it would seem that lack of access to stable housing is caused by poverty, the opposite is actually true: many renters are forced to pay more than they can afford as rent payments outpace income. According to The Joint Center of Housing Studies at Harvard University, nearly 21 million households nationwide pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh has recognized affordable, stable housing as a major barrier to addressing poverty in the city, noting that 25 percent of residents move more than once a year.

A place to call home

That’s where Habitat comes in: SHFH seeks to address issues of poverty and affordable housing.

“That is really our mission and our goal,” Michelle said. “Helping people move out of rental and inadequate housing situations to become homeowners and investing their money and their time to set themselves and their family up for success is really what we aim to do.”

The nonprofit has built about 80 homes around Central New York since it was incorporated in 1984. But those homes aren’t just given away.

“We like to say it’s a hand up, not a handout,” Michelle said.

Families must apply to be homeowners. Once approved, they put in 300 hours of “sweat equity,” as well as a down payment, and they have a low-interest mortgage loan with Habitat, allowing them to build credit and financial equity.

“At the end of that process, they really are homeowners in the full sense of the word, setting themselves and their family up for continued success,” Michelle said.

It’s not just about having a nicer house. Multiple studies have found families living in Habitat housing significantly reduce their reliance on government assistance, including SNAP, utility/heat assistance and Medicaid. Kids who grow up in a Habitat home reported higher grades, better study habits and better school attendance.

“[Those kids are] more likely to be the appropriate weight and height for their age, eating more regular meals at home, higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance, higher rates of home ownership among those children whose parents have been in Habitat [homes] — an entire lifespan of positive results,” Michelle said.

Women empowering women

Those factors were compelling enough to persuade close to 70 women to join SHFH’s Women Build committee. The women, who range in age from 17 to over 65, come from all walks of life: Rina works in risk mitigation at O’Brien and Gere and manages commercial real estate. Co-chair Marissa Mims, who just joined the board at the beginning of February, is a teacher for the Syracuse City School district. There are nurses, faith leaders, veterans, school administrators, engineers and more.

“It’s a really diverse group,” Rina said. “We compliment each other really well.”

“It’s just a really, really wonderful, fruitful group of women,” Michelle added. “I’m just so overwhelmed and impressed by them.”

The committee is still relatively young, having just launched last fall. While they expect to announce the location of the build and the family who will live there during Women Build Week (see sidebar), fundraising is just getting underway.

“We don’t have all the answers yet,” Michelle said. “2019 kind of feels like we really are embarking now together.”

As the fundraising campaign comes together, Women Build is looking for not only funds to help construct the home (see sidebar) but more volunteers.

“Raise awareness,” Michelle said. “Challenge friends and family to kind of a fundraising opportunity. Volunteer on site during the build. Sign on to the committee, even if you can’t come to the meetings.”

Obviously, the goal of the committee is to build a home for a family that needs it. But it’s also accomplishing something else.

“The Women Build Committee is really sharing that idea of, ‘We don’t have to wait to see solutions or to see things change. We can do it right here, right now,’” Michelle said. “We see where we’d like Syracuse to improve and the direction we’d like to take it, and we don’t have to wait for some large, overarching organization or government to do this for us.”

Rina agreed.

“The fact that this could be women-driven and empower women to help break that cycle for another family — it shows us that we can be empowered to do anything, from helping out in a community to doing things that are traditionally not expected of us,” she said.

If you’re interested in joining the Women Build Committee, email Michelle Salvagno at [email protected] or call the Syracuse Habitat office at (315) 422-2230.

Women Build Week

To celebrate this year’s Women Build, Syracuse Habitat for Humanity will hold several events the week of March 8 to March 15 as part of Women Build Week. To cap the week, SHFH will host a celebration where they will announce the family that will move into the house the women will build this year as well as the location for the house. Events are as follows:

Community Clean-up

9:30 a.m. to noon. Saturday, March 9, Shonnard Street and Seymour Street foot path. Meet outside Vincent House (500 Seymour St.). Wear boots and bring work gloves and be prepared to clear brush and foliage.

Beginner Yoga Benefit

7 to 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, 219 S. West St., Syracuse. Led by Ciara Cunningham. Bring your own mat. Suggested donation $15. Must RSVP by Monday, March 11, to [email protected]  or (315) 422-2230.

Tool Workshop

Thursday, March 14, 6 p.m. Home Depot, 3756 Milton Ave., Camillus. Hands-on event. Accessible space. Must RSVP by March 11 to [email protected] or (315) 422-2230.

Women Build Celebration

6:30 to 7:45 p.m. Friday, March 15, Rosamond Gifford Zoo, 1 Conservation Place, Syracuse. Appetizers and cash bar. Accessible space. Must RSVP by Tuesday, March 12, to [email protected] or (315) 422-2230.


Funding the dream

Syracuse Habitat for Humanity (SHFH) will be building a home for a family somewhere in the city later this year—but they need donations to do it. The easiest and fastest way to get those donations is through corporate sponsorships. One hundred percent of sponsorship donations go toward the building program. Sponsors will be recognized throughout the building process and when the house is completed as follows:

Sponsors at all levels will receive the following:

  • Build Sign: company logo on four-by-eight foot build sign located on-site for the duration of the Build
  • Photos: Digital group photo of your volunteers on-site for each Build Day
  • Ceremonies: participation in the Ground Blessing and Home Dedication Ceremonies
  • Publicity: permission to publicize your sponsorship with use of SHFH logo and link to SHFH Website
  • Recognition: donor logo and link on SHFH website, acknowledgment in SHFH Harbinger newsletter, and recognition via various social media channels

These are the different levels of scholarship and the benefits that come with each, in addition to what’s listed above:


  • Build Days: option to schedule three on-site build days for your team


  • Build Days: option to schedule 10 on-site build days for your team
  • Ceremonies: Sponsor Recognition at Ground Blessing and Home Dedication Ceremonies


  • Build Days: option to schedule 15 on-site build days for your team
  • Ceremonies: option for Sponsor Presentation at Ground Blessing and Home Dedication Ceremonies
  • Press Releases: inclusion in all SHFH-prepared press releases related to the Build


  • Build Days: option to schedule 30 on-site build days for your team
  • Ceremonies: option for Sole Sponsor Presentation at Ground Blessing and Home Dedication Ceremonies
  • Press Releases: inclusion in all SHFH-prepared press releases related to the Build
  • Harbinger: feature articles in the Harbinger newsletter (5,000+ distribution)
  • T-shirts: SHFH/Sponsor co-branded t-shirts for each company volunteer