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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.  

When water seeped into the backyard, as a temporary fix she covered the area with patio umbrellas and scraps of carpet. Then she added plastic plants, miniature lights, fountains, candles, and chairs and named the area “Anne’s Paradise.” In creating her paradise, she acquired nine couches, eight patio sets, and piles of clutter. It seemed impossible to organize until she called Rebuilding Together at the suggestion of a friend who had received help from the organization.

“When the volunteers came, I really felt blessed,” Gonzales says. “They really helped out a lot.”

Crissi Belasco, 50, was among the dozens of volunteers who removed two dumpsters of clutter from the house, painted the exterior, cleared the yards, and installed water diversion devices to prevent leakage into the slab. “It’s not too strenuous,” says Belasco, a county court reporter who has volunteered with her daughter, Olivia, 17, on eight projects. “Anyone who shows up is useful, and I would encourage people to show up because it changes your perspective on life. The volunteers get just as much out of this as the recipients.”

Olivia, a high school senior, says volunteering exhausts her, but has strengthened the bond between her and her mother. “After [volunteering], there’s a great feeling that I helped someone,” she says. “Everyone should experience this.”

There are other alternatives to Rebuilding Together, although many may not offer as wide a range of services nor use volunteers. For example, the East Valley HandyWorker Program, which helps 150 families each year in a part of the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, will install grab bars, paint, replace doors and windows, and perform minor plumbing and electrical work. City-approved contractors do the work, and recipient families are chosen based on age, need, and income. Those who need railings, ramps, and grab bars get priority. New clients get priority over those who have already received help.

“Many of these people don’t have to make payments on the house, but they don’t have the funds to keep up, either,” says Ron Berenson, HandyWorker program coordinator. East Valley doesn’t have enough funds to keep up with demand either. While the City of Los Angeles—which fully funds the program—has reduced annual funding by 25 percent, to $500,000, applications are up because of the ailing economy, he says.

Carmen Nevins, 83, says her 1937 two-bedroom house in Van Nuys, California, needed all sorts of work. Not painted in more than a decade, the walls were filthy. She hired a painter, only to find out that he charged exorbitant fees to paint one room. Then, through the East Valley HandyWorker Program, she was able to get the rest of the interior painted. “My husband could paint, but since he passed away, there’s been no one to help,” says Nevins, a Nicaraguan immigrant. “I get afraid of the contractors because I felt one of them overcharged me.”

Yolanda Gonzales (no relation to Anne), 51, had no one to help her, either. She was able to buy a home in Garden Grove, California, for herself and her daughter with money she received from her husband’s life insurance when he died in a house fire. “I felt it would be a way to make sure we had a place to live forever,” she says. But like Nevins, she can’t keep it up by herself. Her health problems have made it difficult to do housework.

Rebuilding Together volunteers installed grab bars and a handheld showerhead. They replaced a toilet, repaired bathroom flooring, and installed an electric garage door opener. They also repaired her backyard fence, which homeless people were jumping over. Gonzales says she feels quite fortunate to have received the help because she knows how so many people struggle to maintain a home.

“My whole life was worry. Now I don’t need to worry all the time,” she says. “What they did was give me a new life.