The housing stock near Elk and Ontario is mostly modest two-story clapboard houses, and it was once a bustling family neighborhood on the edge of Swinburne Park. Tim Doherty grew up here, and he still lives here. But over the years, most of his friends and neighbors moved away. Many sold. According to him, most of the houses fell into neglect due to absentee landlords. The residents that stayed on battled a changing neighborhood. A reassessment hit many hard. The housing market crash did its share of damage, too.
Today, the West Hill area of Albany, NY has one of Albany’s highest rate of abandoned and vacant buildings in the city. Doherty knew that Albany was a major resettlement area for refugees because it was more affordable than other cities in the state. In fact, more than 4,000 refugees have resettled in the Capital Region since in the last 15 years. Many need help with learning English and American customs. Doherty wondered, couldn’t they settle here, in his old neighborhood?
In 2011, he created the Refugee Welcome Corporation (RWC), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that brought together local vacant houses, concentrated around one city block near Elk and Ontario, to create an international village in the city. Doherty rehabbed the houses and worked with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants as well as local nonprofits to become a housing solution for people who had been uprooted from their homes due to tragedy or crisis. His old neighborhood became their new start.
Today, with a combination of ownership and leasing, the RWC houses more than 100 people in 20 buildings across 30 residential units. The majority of these tenancies are single mother-led households.
In 2018, with financial support from the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region, the RWC acquired a commercial building that became the West Hill Refugee Welcome Center. The Center accommodates a variety of neighborhood needs and services, including English language classes, student homework help, and public health lessons.
This year, the Refuge Welcome Center is partnering with Cornell Cooperative Extension to create a community garden for the residents, with goal of creating a place where they can grow fresh fruits and vegetables. The street where Doherty grew up is now helping survivors rebuild their lives.