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Planning an Urban Retirement 

City Sidewalks, Pretty Sidewalks

click to enlarge The exterior of the dual-use Morris/Strano building in Uptown Kingston. Two businesses occupy the ground floor and the family lives on the second floor. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • The exterior of the dual-use Morris/Strano building in Uptown Kingston. Two businesses occupy the ground floor and the family lives on the second floor.

When Rich Morris asked Nora Strano to dance at P&G’s restaurant in New Paltz, a January blizzard blew in, so they just boogied “the night away,” says Strano, smiling at the memory. The combustion chemistry of the groovy Gaelic guy cutely meeting the sassy, sexy Sicilian girl led, in about six weeks, to cohabitation. “It was the ’70s and we were driving our college roommates nuts!” says Morris. To the great relief of their Irish and Roman Catholic parents, 18 months later, Morris and Strano wed. “My husband’s grandmother died happily believing I was Irish because I’m called Nora,” says Strano with a laugh.

An Unconventional Family
For 12 years, the affectionate, artsy couple banged busily away trying to make a baby, eventually consulting nationally renowned fertility experts. They locked often but failed to load. A friend suggested international adoption—South Korea or Honduras—but that exotic avenue blew a tire on geopolitical roadblocks. However the couple, both social workers, had great contacts to mine for baby leads. Morris and Strano began to search locally. The social-theory sophisticates were unusually comfortable with open adoption, which supports the idea that legally-assumed children might openly explore their biological roots and even form relationships when, and if, they ever felt ready. Within weeks, Strano and Morris were matched with the first of three biracial sons they would eventually adopt from the Kingston area—Nicholas, 23; Isaiah, 22; and Michael, 20. Their two younger sons are also birth brothers.

“Rich is from Paterson, New Jersey, a real hotbed of race riots when we were in college,” says Strano. “We’re ardent lefties, so we were open to the idea of adopting children who didn’t necessarily look like us, but we really had no idea about the extent of bias still buried in our society until we began raising kids of color.”
click to enlarge Rich Morris and Nora Strano in their light-filled living room with their three sons, who live at home. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • Rich Morris and Nora Strano in their light-filled living room with their three sons, who live at home.

Upsizing for Retirement
As somewhat older parents, Strano and Morris, both 56, grew concerned a few years ago that the lofty property taxes levied on their 3,000-square-foot residence in the town of New Paltz could wreck their early retirement plan. Brooklyn native Strano yearned to trade septic tanks for sidewalks. Morris pined for a painting studio beyond the basement. But the trope swap of the “Brady Bunch” house for the Cocoon condo proved a blind alley.

This family’s unconventionality surpasses mere race diversification. Each member does something creative—Strano makes hats; Morris is a prolific abstract expressionist painter; Nick edits digital video; Isaiah draws and refinishes furniture; Michael’s a musician who acts in school plays.

Also, because they’d waited so long to become parents, Strano and Morris aren’t panting to become empty-nesters. They decided to plan on all five of them living together indefinitely. They don’t want their sons to ever feel shut out, and it hasn’t been easy for the older boys to find employment. The eldest is a postal worker; the middle son cleans offices; the youngest is a full-time student.

“For our family, downsizing just didn’t work as a retirement housing option,” says Strano. “Our sons may not find jobs for a while that earn enough to pay for their own homes.”

They briefly considered relocating to North Carolina, but “that Southern pride thing, the Confederate flag stickers on the cars, it makes me want to rip their throats out,” says Strano.
click to enlarge Morris in the central hallway, flanked by his paintings. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID

An Extensive Renovation
In July 2010, they made a successful $400,000 cash offer on a dilapidated 1913 two-story commercial building at 260 Fair Street in Kingston. The 6,900-square-foot brick structure—built for Warren Co. Leather and Sporting Goods—boasts windows on all sides, an off-street parking lot, and two ground-floor office spaces with excellent rental histories. To fund the renovation, they took out a home-equity loan on their conventional New Paltz Victorian—which was sold as quickly as possible.

“Buying this building was the most insane risk we ever took,” says Strano. “For two solid years I drove past it—often pulling over, contemplating its buried architectural features—and I’d contacted Murphy Real Estate, the listing agent, but the initial asking price was $780,000, way more than we could afford.”

Repurposing the century-old structure proved far more expensive than estimated. But they were fortunate in choosing Rian Bradley, owner of R. Bradley Renovations and Property Management for the contracting job, initially estimated at $50,000 in labor and about twice that in materials and removal fees. The Kingston native lives nearby and has a soft spot for strategically salvaging uptown’s piles; his grandfather is the late Hon. Vincent Bradley, Ulster County Supreme Court justice.
click to enlarge The second floor was formerly an office space which Morris and Strano renovated more or less completely. One thing they saved was the sign on the Ladies’ Room door. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • The second floor was formerly an office space which Morris and Strano renovated more or less completely. One thing they saved was the sign on the Ladies’ Room door.

Buoyed by an aptitude for problem-solving mated to unflagging esprit de corps—the SUNY Maritime College graduate once sailed professionally - Bradley nevertheless had to break bad news regularly. Recycling the fluorescent light bulbs alone cost $1,000. The concrete enveloping the massive vault added in 1974 by the Kingston Trust Company had to be blasted in order to install plumbing for the second-floor kitchen and laundry room. A maze of office walls erected upstairs in the ’60s without regard for where they met the windows got ripped out, as did drop ceilings, vast expanses of ugly carpeting, and reluctantly, the original pine floorboards, past salvageability. The materials cost alone for the new oak flooring (stained cherry) hit $24,000. As reasonable as Bradley tried to be, the job was so big and complex it took seven employees about six months to make the place habitable.

“I’m a closet smoker, so I’d wake up, step outside for a cigarette, and then I’d find myself praying and asking for advice from my dead father, who’d been Director of the Finance Department for the City of New York,” says Strano.
click to enlarge Michael, the musician in the family, watching football on a Sunday afternoon. Each of Morris and Strano’s three children have a large bedroom in the five-bedroom home. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah Degraffenreid
  • Michael, the musician in the family, watching football on a Sunday afternoon. Each of Morris and Strano’s three children have a large bedroom in the five-bedroom home.

The Boon of Commercial Tenants
Strano and Morris say having commercial tenants is easy because their interests are so aligned. Strano sweeps the gutter out front every morning. Each of the two downstairs offices had its bathroom fully renovated. A specialty bookseller not open to the public has occupied the 2,000-square-foot space for 20 years. An insurance agency whose operations are almost wholly Internet based, leases the 1,200-square-foot unit. Both tenants pay their rent on time and it’s enough to pay for the property taxes plus most other recurring expenses. The whole building’s on a commercial utility meter. Because heat rises and the tenants keep their offices fairly warm in the winter, it doesn’t cost much to heat the family’s six-bedroom, two-bath, 3,900-square-foot loft.

“We don’t have a mortgage, but we don’t have any more money, either—we spent it all on this place, about $650,000 all-in,” says Strano. “Rich finally has a room with great light in which to paint, plus another room for storing canvasses. The demand for his work has picked up—he’s often in gallery shows, and sells online [Rmorrisart.com].”

Strano’s been able to cut back her social-work hours to part-time. Morris plans to continue working full-time for the Onteora Central School District for six years. Strano admits it sometimes feels strange that they no longer have much in savings. Morris doesn’t worry. “I’m going to be able to retire to paint full-time,” says Morris. We put in just two closets upstairs, so if perchance I dropped dead—Nora calls me a medical miracle because I have asthma, hypertension, and diabetes—the whole building can be easily reverted to straight commercial use.”
click to enlarge Rich Morris painting in his studio. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID

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