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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

We are miles, three graduations and almost exactly five years removed from leaving the first house my wife and I bought.

As a close friend prepares to move into the first house he and his wife will own, I started to reflect on the way that first house served as a backdrop for such a seminal period in our family life.

As the temperatures have soared recently, I recalled how our children, who were born in Manhattan, reveled in the chance to run through their own sprinklers. They raced in and out of the water, laughing as their bare feet gripped the soggy, cool ground.

We moved into the house when our daughter had just turned five. On one of her first walks around the neighborhood, she brought back an inchworm on her finger. Eager to share the magic of that tiny life with her mom, she carried it all the way back inside our house, where it disappeared into our steps moments after its arrival.

In the backyard, a perfect climbing tree called to our children. Both of them displayed considerable prowess in scaling that tree towards the top, reaching over 15 feet above us. Their grandparents were in awe of their climbing skills and a bit unnerved by the heights they reached.

Our son and daughter shared a blue swing set. At the top of a small rock climbing wall, they sat on a board sheltered from the sun and rain by a triangular blue cloth. There, they enjoyed ice cream and a few moments in the shade.

On the lawn, we and our children played kickball with their friends and relatives, tossed around a baseball and softball, and played games like Kan Jam.

The seasons each had their defining characteristics. In the spring, a bush by our driveway announced the approaching warm weather with a celebration of white flowers.

Amid a few memorable hurricanes, including the vicious Sandy, we sought shelter in our protected basement, where we slept on mattresses we lugged downstairs, away from howling winds and driving rain. Fortunately, downed trees which cut power for nine days and reduced the temperature inside to 50 degrees didn’t hit our house.

With one season moving both slowly and rapidly into the next, we watched in wonder as our children grew up, bringing hard-earned athletic trophies home and filling the walls with the sound of music that became increasingly melodic and precise.

Family members pulled up to our steep driveway, bringing carved pumpkins, presents and support for our children.

At the end of their treks around the neighborhood during Halloween, our son and daughter emptied enormous pillowcases or bags of candy onto our living room floor, lining up and trading the kind of candy haul that would have made Willy Wonka proud.

Often as my birthday approached, my wife and I spent more time than we probably should have making soft chocolate chip cookies.

During one particularly difficult summer, I developed my first kidney stone. Not wanting to wake anyone, I sought solace in the basement, where I contorted my body into positions on the same floor where we found shelter amid the hurricanes. In the middle of the night, my daughter came down and stood on my back, providing some relief.

Like its occupants, the house wasn’t perfect, with water that took a while to heat at times, bulbs that needed replacing, and appliances that didn’t always work.

And yet, that first house served as the launching pad for new days, dreams and friendships. My wife and I greeted our children’s friends and their parents, who sometimes stopped by for barbecues or to drop something off before the next activity.

As my friend prepares to enter the next phase of his life, I hope the house he shares with his wife bears witness to excitement and adventures that lay ahead, one magical inchworm at a time.

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

A friend called the other day to wish us a happy new year and to tell us that she and her husband had sold their house. The buyers were going to tear it down and build a new one on the property. Before I could react, she assured me that they had lots of pictures from over the years, and their many memories of raising the children there would always stay with them. Clearly she had mixed feelings about what was happening.

It got me to thinking about what a house is. For starters, it’s four walls and a roof, maybe even a basement, but maybe not, in which we shelter ourselves, our families and our stuff. It is also a place where we invite friends and neighbors to drop in for a drink, a chat or even an elegant dinner party. Some of those guests may even stay over from time to time, so a house is a hospitality center in which we connect with those we enjoy and perhaps love.

A house is a physical location where we can be found. When people ask our names, they may immediately follow up with a second question: “Where do you live?” So to some extent, where we live helps define us. But a house is more, so much more. It is a home where those closest to us reside, perhaps where our children grow up, where we planned, and from which we traveled to and from work to become the people we are today. 

Home is where we want to go immediately when we are not feeling well. It’s where we can get a soothing cup of tea or our regular sustenance at mealtimes. Home is a place where we rest, watch television, read the newspaper, use the computer, play video games, call our friends, wash our clothes, floss our teeth and sleep one-third of our lives. Home is our center, where our car knows to go automatically. Home is safe.

The longer we live there, the harder it is to leave.

When my elder brother died, leaving the co-op empty that my parents had bought and lived in for many years, I started slowly to have alterations made inside the apartment. The bathroom and kitchen needed to be brought up to date, appliances modernized, floors improved. 

My cousin watched with some amusement. “You are making a temple to your parents’ memory,” she offered. Not really, I thought to myself. I was investing for a far more pragmatic reason. I had hopes of one day renting it out for some supplemental income. 

But when I thought about her wry comment, I had to admit there was an element of truth in it. Our family had lived there happily for such a long time. I was even born there. It wasn’t just an apartment. It was the physical container for some of my happiest times. And it was comforting, somehow, that it was still there, even if we no longer were.

I remember when I was still in elementary school, just down the block, that one of my young classmates came to school one day to wish us goodbye. With tears in her eyes, she explained that her family was moving to someplace called Ohio for her father’s job, and she would be leaving us. 

“Don’t worry,” soothed the teacher, “you’ll go to a nice school there and make new friends. You’ll grow from the experience. And you can always come back to visit.” She nodded her head obediently, but I remember thinking then how sad it must be to leave one’s home and all associated with it to start over. 

Leaving a home means interrupting the momentum of one’s life. I wondered if my father would ever move us all elsewhere and comforted myself with the thought that he seemed pretty anchored where he was, which meant I would continue to live near my school.

A house is just an inanimate thing, bought and sold. But when it is a home, it can be the soul of the people who once lived there. 

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Bridge of Hope Resource Center founder Celina Wilson is planning to turn a family owned home on Roe Avenue into a shelter for at-risk girls ages 16 to 21. Image from Google Maps

As the old cliché goes, it’s impossible to know when opportunity will knock, just be ready to answer the door when it does. Opportunity knocked for Celina Wilson about 30 years ago, both literally and figuratively. She went on to dedicate her life’s work to the opportunity that was standing at her front door.

The Port Jefferson Station resident founded Bridge of Hope Resource Center with her husband, George, in the late 1990s, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening communities through family communication. The organization for years has been holding seminars, forums, workshops and other similar events to educate the community and arm parents with strategies for connecting with teens and young adults. Wilson and the organization’s overarching ethos is that education and prevention are the best means for keeping kids from falling victim to the ills lurking in society, like drug addiction and depression. In 2018, Wilson is hoping to advance Bridge of Hope’s mission a step further.

Wilson’s in-laws lived in Port Jefferson Station for about 30 years, but 10 years ago, after her husband’s mother died, her father-in-law, John Wilson, decided to move out of the longtime family home on Roe Avenue. The home was left to Bridge of Hope to use as an asset, sheltering families in crisis who had a hard time finding a place to live. Wilson said the only stipulation was the tenants needed to find work and contribute to the rent. Over the course of the last decade, Wilson said three or four families have stayed at the home.

Now, she plans to repurpose it to serve as a shelter for at-risk girls between 16 and 21 years old. The shelter — which will be called John’s House, to honor Wilson’s late father-in-law — will be a place for girls who run away from home or pose a risk of doing so due to conflicts with parents or guardians. While at the home, those staying in the five beds will be supervised and subjected to counseling and other programs in an effort to restore open lines of healthy communication with parents.

The inspiration for the home was several decades in the making for Wilson.

She was living with her now-husband’s family in the same Port Jeff Station home about 30 years ago, she recalled, when a 16-year-old boy knocked on her door. Even though it was 10 p.m., the then-21-year-old answered.

“He was wondering if he could sleep in our house,” Wilson said. “He was tired. He had a fight with his mom, and I’m figuring, ‘He must have knocked at plenty of houses. Why ours?’ We didn’t understand. But he asked us, ‘Please, just for the night, can I just come in?’ What went through my mind was, ‘If we don’t let him in, he’s going to be in the street and who knows what?’”

In the morning, Wilson remembers waking up wanting to hear more of his personal story, but by that time, he was already gone.

“What went through my mind was, ‘If we don’t let him in, he’s going to be in the street and who knows what?’”

— Celina Wilson

“I realized then, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many young people out there, I wonder what his mom was thinking, if she knew he was somewhere safe,’” she said. “The story repeats itself if we fast forward, but it’s
different today because of what our young people are facing.”

Wilson said the home will be funded by donations and some money from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which will also help in placing some of the girls in the home, though space will be available to accommodate the weary traveler like the one who knocked on her door 30 years ago.

“We feel the house is going to be a place where families can send their teens and work on situations that they themselves cannot work on in the home, and prevent them from running away,” Wilson said. “The goal is to reunite that youth back with their family.”

She said the length of stay for occupants will be determined on a case-by-case basis, with an eye toward sheltering those most in need, though she estimated many will be allowed to live there for up to 18 months. Each of the tenants will be expected to participate in counseling sessions and work toward agreed-upon goals, all while Bridge of Hope will be maintaining contact with the families to try to rebuild lines of communication. Wilson said the organization will follow up with the tenants even after they leave the home to make sure they stay on track as they grow up and prepare for independence.

One representative from the resource center will live permanently at the home, who Wilson referred to as the “house mom,” though aides, case workers and other specialists will also be on hand on a rotating basis seven days a week. She said tenants will be supervised at all times and expected to be at the home unless they’re at school, work or an organized activity.

She said admittance into the home will have nothing to do with demographics, as family conflict is common among all segments of society.

“It could be anyone’s child that is out there on the street,” Wilson said. “It could be my child.”

One community member who was helped by Wilson and Bridge of Hope said she sees the organization’s founder as the perfect person for an initiative like John’s House.

“She made things happen for me,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. She said Wilson and the
center worked with her for five years, assisting in finding work and getting her life on track while dealing with a physical disability. “She’s right for these kids. A lot of young people don’t have a place to go.”

She called Wilson a good person and a woman of her word, adding she wished the founder would run for political office.

Wilson said she contacted the Suffolk County Youth Bureau, an entity under the county executive’s purview dedicated to ensuring effective management of county funds for youth services, for assistance in
establishing policies for her initiative. She said the organization also conducted an inspection at the house, which will undergo minor renovations prior to her October target date for opening.

Though members of the bureau’s leadership declined to comment on the dealings with Bridge of Hope, one of its responsibilities includes monitoring and evaluating youth programs, research and planning; information and referrals; and training and technical assistance for community-based youth organizations, according to its website.

Wilson said she sees John’s house as a fitting tribute for the man it’s named after, who migrated to the United States from Jamaica in the Caribbean. He worked for years as a custodian at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital.

“He left such a legacy here and abroad that we thought it appropriate to call it John’s House because he lived a life of service, kindness and love to his fellow man,” she said.

To donate to help Wilson’s cause, visit www.gofundme.com/xtzv6n-hope-for-her.

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If you’re reading this on a cellphone somewhere, please stop. No, seriously. You can read it on your computer or in an actual copy of the paper but, please, stop reading this and look around you.

OK, are you back in your office or at your home?

It’s disturbing how often our cellphones become an escape from the here and now. I get it: We’re waiting in line to order a hamburger and we want to do something, so we plan our vacations or send text messages to our friends.

In the process, we’ve lost sight of what’s around us. It’s as if we’ve covered our eyes with electronic blinders and we can’t be bothered to pay attention to our surroundings.

I was recently driving through town and noticed a woman walking a large, chocolate Labrador along the sidewalk. His rear legs were pointed out as he walked. As I drove by, I noticed that the woman held the leash on her wrist as she was completely absorbed in her cellphone. Seconds later, the dog relieved himself on the sidewalk while trying to keep up with his oblivious owner. The dog looked uncomfortable as he tried to multitask.

I realize dogs are an enormous responsibility and that every time someone walks a dog, that person may not feel the urge to dedicate his or her complete attention to a conversation with the family pet.

“Hey, Tigger, look at that squirrel over there. Oh, wow, there’s a bunny. Do you see the bunny? Oh, wait, there are two bunnies.”

“What do you smell, Fifi? Was there another dog here a few hours ago and did he leave you a little scent present?”

We don’t have to connect with our pets every moment of every day. But wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to pay them some attention while we were out walking them? After all, how often do they come over to us when we’ve had a tough day, or give us their paw—or offer us companionship?

Everywhere we go, we have the opportunity to tune out the world around us and surf our way to somewhere else.

It’s thrilling to travel halfway around the world and send pictures instantly of a magnificent sunset, or the Eiffel Tower or a three-toed sloth. We can be connected to almost anyone almost anytime.

That shouldn’t give us license to disconnect from the people and the pets around us. It’s the economic concept of opportunity cost applied to our attention. The opportunity cost of paying attention to what’s on our phone is that we ignore our surroundings.

Remember those public service announcements which said, “It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your children are?” Maybe we should have messages that pop up on our phone suggesting that “It’s 6 o’clock, do you know where you are,” or maybe, “It’s 6 o’clock, pick up your head and check out the here and now (or H&N).”

Maybe we should also develop an H&N logo we can put on clothing or notebooks. It can even become a verbal reminder to our companions.

“Class,” a teacher might say as she noticed her students taking furtive glances at their phones, “H&N, right? Let’s learn the material now, while you’re here.”

H&N may be a way of encouraging us to be where our bodies are at the moment, and not where the internet has taken us.

Dogs, meanwhile, shouldn’t have to multitask while they’re relieving themselves. If Fluffy could talk, she might say, “For goodness’ sake, H&N, I need a moment here.”

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If you were to ask those of us of a certain age, we would insist that we want to age in place. That is, we want to continue to live in our houses, cook in our kitchens and sleep in our bedrooms. This is a worthy goal for it saves family and the government a lot of money. Statistics have shown that hospitalization and nursing homes are far more costly than living at home. Still, we also know that more accidents happen in the home, and that means continuing to live at home presents certain challenges.

The greatest hazard, it would seem, is for older adults to fall. Now, and for the last score of years, there are programs with certifications that train people how to make homes safer, especially for preventing falls. For example, the National Association of Home Builders offers a course that trains CAPS: certified aging in place specialists. These may be builders, remodelers, occupational therapists or interior designers who can come into a home and make suggestions for retrofitting.

There are 3,500 such specialists but Dan Bawden, from Houston, who helped develop the program in 2001, told The New York Times there are 10 times as many needed to upgrade such homes. The highest rate of home ownership in the country, some 80 percent, is by older people, and the great majority of us are in single-family homes.

The three most important features allowing residents to move around safely are: to have an entrance without steps; to live on a single floor; and to have hallways and doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, less than 4 percent meet that description. And if further features are thrown in, like doors with lever handles — rather than knobs — plus light switches and electric outlets that can be reached from a wheelchair, that rate falls to 1 percent, according to the recent article in the Times: “Planning to Age in Place? Find a Contractor Now” by Paula Span.

At this point, with about 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, it would make the most sense for every new house to be constructed according to what is termed “universal design.” Such homes would have bathroom grab bars, higher toilets, curbless showers, widened doorways and added lighting. Such features would promote independence for the disabled and older people.

There are other associations that offer similar certification programs. Certified Living in Place Professional program is one such. Local agencies on aging and senior centers may also give this kind of information. What seems to work best is if an occupational therapist and a CAPS, or equivalently trained graduate, team up to interview each homeowner and determine what is most needed.

Costs for these modifications can be a problem. There is little government help for such remodeling, with the exception of the Department of Veterans Affairs and perhaps Medicaid. Some states do offer tax credits but not many. Mostly such alterations are privately financed, despite the potential savings from staying at home. A bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress last year for a $30,000 federal tax credit, but to date it has gone nowhere.

Approximate costs could run as follows, according to Bawden: two grab bars installed for $200-$300; replace doorknobs with lever handles $60-$90; for every relocated electrical outlet or switch, $175-$250. Those are the smaller costs. Then there is replacing a tub with a roll-in shower at $8,000-$10,000, and an entirely new bathroom with universal design elements for more than $25,000.

The biggest hurdle of all may be to get older residents to feel that they need such modifications. At the least, kitchen floors might be textured rather than covered with tiles that are slippery when wet; the color of the kitchen counters might contrast with the color of the floor as the more elderly lose depth perception; front edges of stairs could be outlined with colored tape; freezers are safer in a pullout drawer at the bottom of a refrigerator — and, for Pete’s sake, get rid of those much-beloved throw rugs.

Down Payment Assistance Program to help 35 families

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Legislator Kara Hahn congratulate down payment recipients in Port Jefferson. Photo from Steve Bellone's office

By Donna Newman

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) recently announced the extension of the Suffolk County Down Payment Assistance Program, which assists first-time homebuyers with funds for a down payment to help make the “American Dream” of homeownership a reality.

Assistance will provide up to $10,000 in grant funding to eligible first-time homebuyers — helping an additional 35 Suffolk County families. Since the program’s inception, Suffolk County has helped more than 1,700 families with down payments on their first homes.

Applications are now being accepted through Nov. 30. Residents may download the application through the Community Development tab on the County’s website, www.suffolkcountyny.gov.

Applications will be accepted by mail only and may also be requested by telephone from the Community Development Office: 631-853–5705.

Bellone stressed that qualified Suffolk County residents must purchase a home within the consortium area. They will have 90 days from the date of issuance of the Purchase Certificate to submit a fully executed Contract of Sale to the Community Development Office — or 300 days to submit a fully executed contract of sale if the first-time homebuyer is purchasing a new construction home.

The consortium includes all of Suffolk County, excluding the Towns of Babylon and Islip.

Comprehensive details of the eligibility criteria, income guidelines and other elements of the program are available on the County website. Key eligibility elements include:

• An applicant must be a first-time homebuyer as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that has not owned a home during the three-year period immediately prior to the purchase of a residence with HOME funding.

• Prospective applicants must represent a low to moderate income household with an annual income not exceeding 80 percent of the area median income as determined by HUD, which includes an adjustment for family size; must have at least $3,000 banked at the time of application; have a documented minimum income of at least $30,000 and be able to obtain a mortgage from a qualified lender.

• The maximum appraised value of a single-family residence to be purchased within the Suffolk County Consortium HOME Selection Area cannot exceed $356,000 for existing housing or new construction. Single-family homes, condominiums and cooperative apartments (co-ops) are eligible.

By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Clients often ask how they can ensure the home in which they live or their vacation home can be protected against the cost of long-term care.  These assets are often worth much more to our clients than the cash value; they represent hard work to pay off the mortgage and are wrapped in memories.

Prior to the sophistication of trust law, many individuals would pass a residence to their beneficiaries by executing a deed with a life estate. For the owner, this would mean retaining the right to live in the home until death, but upon their demise, the property would be fully owned by the beneficiaries.

Because they retained a lifetime interest in the property, they would still be able to claim any exemptions with respect to the property. Moreover, when the owner died, the beneficiaries would get a “step-up” in basis, which eliminates or lessens capital gains tax due if they did sell the property.

The negative aspect to this kind of transfer is loss of control. Once the deed is transferred to the beneficiaries, they have the ownership interest. If the original owner wanted to sell the property or change who receives it upon their death, they would have to get the permission of those to whom they transferred the property. Another negative aspect is that if the individual is receiving Medicaid benefits and the house is sold, a share of the proceeds, the life estate interest, would be paid out to the individual and could put their Medicaid benefits in jeopardy.

A better option for protecting a residence is by executing an irrevocable Medicaid Qualifying Trust, which can transfer real property at death. Like the deed with a life estate, this trust grants all the tax benefits and exclusive occupancy during life, i.e., STAR exemption, veteran’s exemption, capital gains exemption.

This method is superior to the deed with a life estate because if the property is sold during your lifetime, the full amount of the proceeds are protected within the trust and will pass to your beneficiaries upon your death. The trust also gives the ability to change the beneficiaries at any time, leaving some control in the hands of the original owner of the property.

A person’s residence is their most treasured and often most monetarily valuable asset. It is important to meet with an experienced attorney to ensure protection of your home or vacation home.

Nancy Burner, Esq. has practiced elder law and estate planning for 25 years. The opinions of columnists are their own. They do not speak for the paper.