From Big Apple to small town

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Catherine Lorentz, AIA, advocates low-income housing that is both affordable and attractive. Catherine Lorentz, AIA, advocates low-income housing that is both affordable and attractive.

NYC architect now designs county housing

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – When she lived in New York City, architect Catherine Lorentz designed a million-dollar staircase for a Manhattan law firm and worked on the redesign of the city’s Chelsea Piers. Today, Lorentz plans homes for low-income residents of Cape May County, and recently remodeled a bayfront beach shack.

Since she relocated to South Jersey, the change in Lorentz’s lifestyle and surroundings has been dramatic. So was what prompted the move: Sept. 11, 2001.

“My office was 25 blocks from the World Trade Center – I could see it from my window,” said Lorentz, formerly of the firm Butler Rogers Baskett. In fact, she said, on the morning of the terrorist attacks, she was on the last train under the trade center before transportation was suspended, and also was scheduled to attend a meeting at the financial firm of Marsh McLennan, which occupied eight upper floors of the north tower.

“I had clients in that building,” she said. “But I cancelled the meeting.”

Though Lorentz dodged disaster that day, she was near the center of the drama. Her house in Brooklyn was 10 miles from the financial district, and after she made her way home – passing army tanks and machine gun-wielding troops on the way, and seeing fighter jets roaring over the Hudson River – she watched as a hail of papers from the Trade Center fell into her backyard. Firefighters came by on a regular basis to be hosed down. Two of her brothers, who were members of the fire department, were not on duty that day and were unharmed.

The attack helped Lorentz make a long-deferred decision: to move to the home she had inherited on a tree-lined street in Cape May Court House.

“I always wanted to live here but I didn’t have the impetus to go,” said Lorentz, who had spent girlhood summers in the home owned by her grandmother and uncle.

Even after deciding to move, it took Lorentz and her husband Kevin Clifford several years to renovate the Civil War-era structure she described as “sort of a poor man’s Greek revival.” She kept most of the original home intact, made it more energy-efficient, added a kitchen, and was careful to spare a 75-year-old catalpa tree and a 150-year-old elm. When she needed extra wood, she found some old white cedar, which was typical of local homes built in the 19th century.

“Renovation is my specialty,” she said. “I truly enjoy talking old buildings and repurposing them and giving them new life.”

After settling in, Lorentz promptly got involved in her community, especially the effort to improve affordable housing.

“We want to provide reasonably prices homes for working families,” said Lorentz. “If you’re going to build affordable housing, let’s not build chicken coops, or projects made out of cinder blocks with asphalt parking lots.

Cape May County “has some of the oldest homes in America,” she said, and affordable housing should reflect that history.

She helped the organization Piloting American Dreams to renovate a vacant three-family dwelling, adding homey touches like a front porch, window boxes and awnings. A member of the housing advisory board, she is also working with Habitat for Humanity and the county to plan and build a number of new homes, including a three-bedroom bungalow on Reeves Street in Court House that will be complete by summer.

Shawn Lockyear, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Cape May County, said she shares the goal to make “neighborhood-friendly developments with architecture that is more in sync with what’s already here.”

Lorentz believes residents who oppose the concept of affordable housing “will be less resistant if these are smaller-scale projects, and something that is attractive.” She noted that tens of thousands of soldiers may be returning home soon, some with disabilities, who may benefit from affordable housing.

While she sometimes misses the stimulation of living in New York – she called it “the center of the art world, the financial world and the intellectual world” – she doesn’t miss the noise, and living in Cape May County is the realization of a lifelong wish.

“My Poplar Street house is filled with loving memories of family, friends and summer,” she said. “I always had a dream of getting back to a smaller town.”

Catherine Lorentz at the site of a home under construction in Whitesboro with Shawn Lockyear, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Cape May County, and Bearetta Harrison-Black, homeowner. Catherine Lorentz at the site of a home under construction in Whitesboro with Shawn Lockyear, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Cape May County, and Bearetta Harrison-Black, homeowner.

Building hope

Last week Bearetta Harrison-Black worked at the construction site of her new home on Reeves Street in Whitesboro. The three-bedroom bungalow, built by Habitat for Humanity with the help of numerous vendors and volunteers, should be ready for Harrison-Black and her three sons, Jazz, Malcolm and Josiah, by early July.

“Everybody is thrilled,” she said, walking through the rooms with a tool belt and hammer. “I’m excited. My oldest boy is excited.”

The Ruiz and Wakefield families, who are looking forward to the construction of their own homes on nearby Sumner Street, also worked on the bungalow. Selected homeowners must commit to 300 hours in the building of Habitat homes.

Though she doesn’t know when construction will begin on her home, Sharay Wakefield said, “I have it in the future to look forward to.”

“It’s a big blessing for Habitat to unite with us to bring us forth another step in life,” said Marielis Ruiz.

Though Gov. Chris Christie last year abolished the Council on Affordable Housing, which was responsible for enforcing the state’s Fair Housing Act, municipalities are “continuing to assume they have obligations in terms of affordable housing,” said Shawn Lockyear, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Cape May County. Habitat for Humanity homes are all COAH-compliant and the county receives credit for each home built, she added.

Habitat for Humanity provides homes below market value with no-interest mortgages for selected homeowners. The homes are deed-restricted for 30 years, and homeowners who move must sell the homes back to the organization.


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