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For senior homeowners, repair costs loom large

Aging housing stock and fixed incomes leave Boston seniors vulnerable

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
For senior homeowners, repair costs loom large
Roxbury homeowner Patricia Hecker struggled to stay warm in her drafty house before the United South End Settlements Senior Home Repair Program provided assistance, in partnership with the Department of Neighborhood Development’s Boston Home Center. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Seventy-year-old Roxbury homeowner Joanne C. counts her blessings. Her husband George is homebound with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but she is thankful neither of them needs a lot of costly medications. Her grown son and George’s grown daughter can lend a hand on occasion, freeing Joanne to go to church or join with other seniors at AARP meetings and local recreation centers. She still drives. Most important, the mortgage on the house she purchased 31 years ago is paid in full.

Yet Joanne (who prefers her full name not be used) worries every day. Her modest house, crowded with photos and mementos, was built in 1900 and is showing its age. It needs a slew of repairs that she can ill afford.

“We don’t have any money,” she said. “Some people may think we have 401(k)s and money in the bank. We don’t.”

A home in distress

On a still-wintry April day, Joanne showed a reporter some of the problems: unstable porches with missing railings; a broken faucet; leaky windows; a baseboard heating system that has to be cranked to 85 degrees to keep her bedroom livable, while the temperature soars on the little-used third floor.

A first-floor rental unit once provided extra income. Now the unit has been pulled into service as an accessible living area for George, who is 94 and increasingly immobile. Joanne moved a bed downstairs for him after she had to summon an ambulance one day when he couldn’t make it up the stairs.

“When we first moved here, my husband was younger, and healthy,” she said. “He did all the painting, built a little back porch. He could do things. Now he can’t help me do anything.”

For more information

For help with home repairs:

Boston Home Center:

• Phone: 617-635-HOME (4663) (includes contact info for USES and other provider agencies)

Rebuilding Together Boston:

• Website:

• Email:

• Phone: 617-971-0058

Aging homes, aging population

Traditional wisdom says home ownership provides economic security in old age, but as the senior population swells, repair costs rise and more people enter retirement saddled by debt, many elders find themselves “house-rich but cash-poor,” unable to keep up with repairs or adapt the home to be safe for frailer bodies.

In older cities like Boston, aging housing stock is part of the problem, especially in lower-income neighborhoods not spruced up by gentrification. And the recent recession took a toll on home upkeep nationally. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of moderately or severely inadequate homes in the U.S. increased by 7 percent between 2007 and 2011, reversing a trend of improvement.

The city’s Boston 2030 housing report issued last fall estimates that while many older Boston homeowners have adequate funds to cover costs, about 4,000 low-income older homeowners currently face significant financial challenges in home upkeep, utilities and taxes.

With the first of the large Baby Boom generation well into traditional retirement age, the U.S. older adult population is growing rapidly, with the U.S. Census projecting a 60 percent increase in those 65 and older between 2014 and 2030. In Boston, seniors are the fastest-growing population segment, with the city set to gain 22,500 senior households between 2010 and 2030.

The older population nationally and locally also is becoming more diverse. A report by the UMass Gerontology Institute and the Boston Elderly Commission shows that from 2000 to 2010, the number of white people 60 and older dropped 3 percent in Boston, while numbers for all nonwhite groups increased. These trends are expected to continue.

As this increasingly nonwhite population ages, the population of older adults with lower lifetime earnings and scant assets will grow, as minorities tend to fall on the lower side of racial gaps in income and wealth. In Boston, a majority of the new senior households will have incomes under $50,000, according to the Boston 2030 report.

Joanne bucks the wealth gap trend in one sense, as an African American who owns her home free and clear. But she’s not alone in her need to pinch pennies and seek help.

Nonprofit and government programs for home repair

Home repair assistance is out there, if seniors know where to look.

Sandra Henriquez, the former Boston Housing Authority administrator and HUD assistant secretary, now heads Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit with local affiliates that mobilize contractors and volunteers to perform free repairs and accessibility modifications. The organization assists about 10,000 low-income homeowners annually. In an interview, Henriquez emphasized home repair assistance — by both government and nonprofit sectors — as a means of tackling a problem that can push seniors into nursing homes or even homelessness.

“We know the need continues to grow,” she said. “A lot of people who have spent good years helping in their communities now need some help themselves. We take seriously that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

In Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, 67-year-old Curline Wilmoth’s family has been struggling to care for her after she suffered a debilitating stroke in 2010 and had to leave her job as a hospital housekeeper. Her wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the bathroom door, and family members had to carry the chair down and up the front steps each time Curline went to the doctor or to Uphams Corner Elderly Service Center programs.

Her family applied to Rebuilding Together Boston (RTB). During the organization’s National Rebuilding Days in April, a crew of local contractors and volunteers converged on the Wilmoth house to construct a wheelchair ramp, widen the bathroom door and install a more accessible toilet.

“God bless them, all of them,” said Curline’s daughter Yvonne, 39. “Life will be much easier.”

The average homeowner Rebuilding Together serves nationally has lived in the home for 23 years, but most have spent less than $1,000 on repairs and improvements in the prior two years — far less than a typical homeowner.

Clara Garcia is director of senior services at United South End Settlements (USES) in Boston, one of the provider agencies for the Department of Neighborhood Development’s Boston Home Center, which funds home repairs for elders. Garcia sees firsthand insufficient home maintenance that can lead to serious safety, health and accessibility problems.

“We see homes that are very dilapidated,” she said. “The seniors as they’ve aged have not really kept up with the upkeep. They feel that owning the house is the important thing, and do not realize how it’s deteriorating.”

Using federal Community Development Block Grant funds, the city has provided repair aid for 520 senior homeowners in the past year; of these, USES handled 53 in Roxbury and other neighborhoods. Provider agencies perform minor repairs such as fixing doorbells and installing grab bars. For larger jobs such as roof or heating system replacement, they help homeowners apply for the Home Center’s major repair funds. Low-income seniors who are current with their water and property tax bills may be able to receive a no-interest loan or a grant.

A paperwork and waiting game

At her small dining room table, Joanne C. motioned to a pile of documents assembled for repair assistance applications.

Proving her eligibility has not been difficult, she said. Two Social Security incomes and a small pension from her 30-plus years of work as a diet educator at Deaconess Hospital bring in about $30,000 annually. But her quarterly property tax bill went up by $100 this year, and after a harsh winter, she is still paying off $800 heat bills for each unit.

The Gerontology Institute’s Elder Economic Security Index estimates that in Suffolk County, comprising primarily Boston, a home-owning couple without a mortgage typically needs $35,256 per year — far higher than the Federal Poverty Guideline benchmark — to meet basic living expenses. A single person with a mortgage, like Patricia Hecker, may need as much as $37,344, according to the Index.

Recently, Joanne applied for the second time to Rebuilding Together Boston. Her first application a couple of years ago was rejected. To her surprise, they didn’t deem her repair needs big enough to send a crew of volunteers.

“If I’d known they wanted to be here all day, I would have showed them more!” she said ruefully. “I didn’t know! So I was turned down.”

Now, as she awaited word from RTB, she was also looking forward to a scheduled appointment with Clara Garcia to see if USES Senior Services could help.

Relief in sight

One senior already helped by USES is Patricia Hecker, 74, who received assistance for roof repair, storm windows, and a new back door on her Roxbury home.

Hecker bought the house 15 years ago, making the down payment with money she saved from selling crafts, she said. Her mortgage payment takes up much of her income, a pension from 22 years of work as a driver for the city’s Senior Shuttle service. She is happy with her home on a quiet street with a small garden — but admits it’s a struggle to make ends meet.

“When you’re on a fixed income and you have no money to fix things, you just do what you have to do — I was putting bedspreads across the windows, shutting doors, wearing tons of sweaters, and putting blankets on my lap. It was awful, for a while,” she said, sitting down at USES before going to senior lunch and an art class. “Now it’s a lot warmer. It’s really helped.”

By mid-May, Joanne, too, sounded upbeat. Garcia had visited. USES will help with some of her small tasks and help her apply for major repair funds for her heating system.

“I didn’t want to get a loan, but if in 10 years I can still be comfortable in my home, I’ll be happy,” she said. “I’m just so vulnerable at this point, and so tired. I have to get that heat fixed before next winter.”

She added, “It looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Sandra Larson wrote this article through a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, with support from AARP. This story is part of a series on housing challenges for low-income seniors in Boston.

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