Habitat aids impoverished homeowners

Henry and Bertha Buchanan are both in their late 80s and have lived in the same small house on west Charlotte's Sherrill Street since 1954.

They don't plan to move any time soon, which is a problem, since the foundation is crumbling, the rafters are rotting, and there's a fierce leak that sends rain cascading over their breaker box.

Left unchecked, the problems would surely have forced the city to evict the couple and demolish the home for being unsafe. But the Buchanans found help this week from a new program created by Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte that is serving as a model for the nation.

Instead of only building new homes for the poor, Habitat Charlotte is expanding to offer home repair projects for the city's impoverished elderly, single parents, retirees and people with disabilities. It's a desperately needed service in a city where an estimated 5,000 homeowners are living at the poverty level and can't afford critical repairs needed to meet city codes.

“These people weren't poor when they bought their homes,” says Lucy McDermott of Charlotte Habitat. “They were middle class. They scrimped and saved and bought into the American Dream. Then they became retirees and had to live off Social Security or pensions. All it takes is one visit to the emergency room or a tree falling through the roof, and suddenly it all falls apart.”

Charlotte Habitat is going public with the program only months after quietly working out details on funding sources, client selection and recruitment of skilled volunteers. To date, it has repaired a dozen houses, some of which faced the threat of demolition.

Habitat officials say their inspiration came from a proposal made by Pat Marcum of Love INC of Mecklenburg County, a charity that aids shut-ins and people with disabilities.

The program is similar to one created six years ago by the city's Department of Neighborhood Development that repairs 25 homes a year – and has a waiting list of 250. Meanwhile, the city demolishes about a half-dozen houses a month for being unsafe.

Charlotte Habitat may do as many as 18 home repairs this year, at an average cost of $6,500 per project. The funding is being supplied by donations, foundations and the city of Charlotte.

The homeowners themselves also chip in, with monthly payments that range from $25 to $100.

Tim O'Neil, director of Critical Home Repair Program, says he hopes that Habitat Charlotte is forging a model that can be repeated by other Habitat affiliates as a way to preserve affordable housing.

“The city has been doing a good job with its Urgent Repair Program, but the fact is, there are just too many families in need, and that's what propelled us into this,” says O'Neil, noting the bulk of their work will be on repairing floors and roofs.

“We've been surprised at just how many people live, day in and day out, with buckets to catch the rainwater. We're working on one woman's home, a widow, and she had big holes in her roof, 4-by-4 and 4-by-8 holes. The floors had become so rotten that one of our volunteers stepped through when he walked in. Her house was on the chopping block for being demolished.”

Among the grateful clients is Mable Patterson Clinton, 62, a disabled widow whose home got a new roof, floors, electrical work and plumbing.

“It got to where there were so many things wrong with my house, I didn't invite people over,” she says. “It was like the house was dying and I thought there was no hope. Now, I think of Habitat as part of my family. It's like my house is alive again.”