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Equity Rich, Cash Poor, Need Handyman

In the economic downturn, many seniors struggle to maintain their homes. Some turn to nonprofits that can lend a helping hand.

The thousand or so dolls in Anne and Albert Gonzales’s house never change expression: their cheeks stay rosy, their smiles never fade. And as maintenance problems recently mounted in their house, Anne Gonzales tried to match her dolls’ demeanor. But she couldn’t. The challenges of keeping up the home—though less than 1,000 square feet—weighed too heavily on her. “I really felt at a loss to know what to do,” says the 65-year-old from Santa Ana, California.

Housing experts say she’s like thousands of older low-income seniors who own their homes but are having difficulty maintaining them. They can’t do the work themselves, can’t afford to hire contractors, and can’t—with falling housing prices—sell and move. Fortunately, some groups are stepping in to lend a helping hand.

“The bottom line is that older people are caught in the middle. They have this great asset but they don’t have any liquidity,” says Greg Secord, director of special projects and Safe at Home for Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit that provides seniors with housing assistance. Deferring maintenance to pay for food and medicine, while necessary, can “become a negative spiral,” he says, with the home’s value going down as its condition deteriorates.

The bad economy makes things even worse, Secord says. The cost of utilities such as electricity and fuel has soared, while programs that could help seniors with housing are receiving less money—but more applications for help. He adds that seniors may have trouble qualifying for home equity lines of credit and even if they do get a loan, with limited incomes they may have trouble making payments.

In some respects, the housing situation for seniors appears bright. In 2007, owners accounted for 80 percent of the 21.8 million households headed by people over 62, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and 73 percent of senior homeowners owned their homes free and clear. But a report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that more than a million Americans age 65 and older spend more than half of their incomes on housing, and that about half of the disabled seniors lack the structural modifications—for example, handrails, grab bars, ramps, elevators, and stair lifts—that could help them function more easily at home.

Making Homes Habitable
Several nonprofits know firsthand the problems facing senior homeowners and are working to help them. Rebuilding Together is one group tackling the challenges. The organization’s 206 offices nationwide enlist 250,000 volunteers each year to complete 10,000 home improvement projects, including the installation of wheelchair ramps, cabinets, and plumbing. Program staff and volunteers find seniors trying to live independently in homes that are too large, ill-equipped for the owner’s new physical challenges, or buried in clutter. Yet for every four applications Rebuilding Together receives, it can only help one applicant. Secord says those looking for help can check with their city government and local Area Agency on Aging or enter “senior home repairs” and a city’s name in a search engine such as Google or Yahoo!

While “in the big picture [Rebuilding Together]’s work is a drop in the bucket,” Secord says, “if it weren’t for our intervention, a home could be considered uninhabitable or unsafe. People are really caught. There are not a lot of options. We are often the agency of last resort.”

That was the case for Anne Gonzales, who had always turned to her husband for help when their home needed maintenance. But once Alzheimer’s disease began to take its toll on him, she didn’t know how to handle problems such as removing mildew and mold that were growing from an unsealed space between the home’s wall footings and slab.  

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