In rural and small town communities across America, rehab and weatherization programs are a critical resource for families struggling to stay in safe, sustainable and affordable homes. Residents are challenged with high rates of single-family homeownership combined with an aging housing stock, relative isolation, lax housing codes and limited access to financing.
Yet despite a high demand for these programs, nonprofits in rural America face overwhelming challenges when trying to run a sustainable rehab line of business. High program costs are compounded by shrinking sources of federal, state and county funding and limited sources of skilled labor and building materials.
To combat these challenges, NeighborWorks America partnered with the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation to establish a new funding source for strengthening rural communities. With $1 million in expendable grants, nine NeighborWorks organizations who are active in the rural rehab space across the country are funding 53 affordable housing rehab projects that conform to health, safety and energy-efficiency standards, as well as replacements of 12 dilapidated houses with Energy Star-rated factory-built homes.
The NeighborWorks rural team recently visited some of the Safe and Sound grantee organizations. One was Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) in Burlington, VT. As the oldest community land trust, CHT serves residents living in some of the oldest housing stock in the country. As a result, many of the homes require significant energy-efficiency upgrades and replacement of old, worn-out systems related to air and water temperature and quality. Alarmingly, nearly 60 percent of homes in the area were built when lead paint was prevalent.
“Sometimes people are in really precarious situations,” Cheryl Read told us. “But sometimes we can replace a furnace or a roof and that buys them some time to get their ducks in a row so they can afford a replacement.”
In the case of one home that was considered a historic resource, Read added, “We had to be careful because one of the things that really needed to be repaired was the porch. Nobody knew until the contractor got there that one of the support beams had snapped at some point. It had been that way for a long time. They were so fortunate they got that taken care of because it could’ve been a major issue.”
Another site visited by the team was Self-Help Enterprises in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where we met Salvador and Rita Rodriguez. Both 70 years old, the retired homeowners live on a fixed income in a 1,751-square-foot home built in 1935. The roof shingles were leaking, and the exterior siding was cracked and damaged from rot. During the cold valley winters, the temperature would drop below freezing, and the lack of insulation made the nights long and miserable. At the other extreme, the summers are scorching and the home was unable to trap the cool air from the window-mounted air-conditioning unit. Compounding the problems were exposed electrical wiring, leaky plumbing, rusty gas lines, loose vinyl floor tiles and broken windows that would not open. (Sounds like the movie, “Money Pit”!)
They were an ideal match for the Safe and Sound grant, and they received $7,050 through the program, along with a zero-percent interest, deferred-payment loan offered by Self-Help Enterprises through a partnership with the city of Woodlake. In addition to all of the obvious repairs and upgrades to make the home compliant with green building codes, a wheelchair-accessible shower was installed to help with Salvador’s recovery from surgery.
The Rodríguezes say they indeed now feel much more “safe and sound.”