Catch-22: The Tortuous Path to Home Repair Help

Mary Stimpson was supposed to be a high-priority candidate for assistance repairing her roof and furnace. Instead she languished for years without heat until some advocates went above and beyond. 

home repair: photo shows man in orange shirt repairing leak in roof
Photo by Wil C. Fry via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Healthy homes are a human right. However, many people live in substandard conditions that result in increased health issues and hospitalizations. For many low-income homeowners, paying for crucial repairs and maintenance is often out of reach, leaving them in unhealthy homes. There are programs designed to help with home repairs, but sometimes bringing the right ones to bear at the right time is easier said than done.

Mary Stimpson came to the attention of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Center for Housing and Community Studies (CHCS) in February 2019. CHCS’s Health Impact team identifies “health impacted” neighborhoods by mapping hospital admissions data for respiratory illness as well as using PolicyMap’s Lead Exposure Risk Score and data on poor-quality housing from a parcel-level census it conducted in 2017. They then use this information to identify residents who may be eligible for state or locally funded home repairs, through demographic research followed up with door-to-door outreach. When the team met Stimpson, she had been without heat in her home for more than two years and had a basketball-sized hole in her roof that confined her to a small portion of her home. She had to carry her space heater around the house with her to stay warm. Once the CHCS team discovered Stimpson, they immediately referred her to the regional service provider Piedmont Triad Regional Council (PTRC), which provides funds for housing programs, weatherization, and other home repair services in Greensboro, to have her home heat fixed.

The U.S. Department of Energy and state and local guidelines define Stimpson as a “high priority candidate,” meaning she meets at least one of the criteria for prioritized service provision. She actually meets many as a low-income, widowed, senior homeowner. Her home repairs should have been of the utmost priority for PTRC. However, their assessment identified so many structural issues that Stimpson’s house was deemed unsafe, such that if she were to have an inspection done, her house would have been condemned, taking away her only source of wealth.

She most pressingly needed a new furnace, but PTRC’s weatherization program disqualified her from receiving funding for a furnace as there was a breach in her roof. The roof could have been repaired through a City of Greensboro zero-interest loan program, but since there was no furnace, the city would have condemned her home. This Catch-22 demonstrates the challenges that low-income residents face in accessing government-funded services.

Local partners, including CHCS, came together, raised funds, and organized and  volunteers to patch her roof as a temporary fix to help kickstart the process. These volunteer efforts came together informally, which is not a sustainable way to approach home repairs communitywide. With the repair complete, in early summer 2019, Stimpson was finally able to apply for weatherization services with PTRC. In the minds of CHCS staff, her case was resolved.

[RELATED: Why Organizations Should Invest in Home Repairs to Improve Health]

However, another barrier arose. The PTRC funding cycle ended and all applicants had to reapply for the new fiscal year. According to the agency, they re-sent Stimpson the application with a notice to reapply, but never heard back. Stimpson says she never saw the notice and did not realize that she had to reapply if she didn’t receive services within the calendar year. CHCS estimates that less than 20 percent of referrals complete the PTRC application process because of the large amount of documentation required. Once approval has been granted, completed applications then sit on a waiting list and applicants often don’t realize they need to resubmit qualifying documentation each year. These are common problems, but because PTRC handles so many service requests annually, it does not have enough staff to follow up with individuals who don’t reply—even the high-priority cases.

Believing she had been rejected for weatherization funds, Stimpson hoped to turn to other agencies that focus on assistance for elderly communities. But there she ran into a new problem. When her husband died many years prior, he did not leave a will. Under North Carolina estate law, when someone does not leave a will, their assets are divided evenly among their spouse and any children. Stimpson’s husband had three children from a previous relationship, so she was technically only a 25 percent owner of her home. One of the community agencies she had reached out was going to fully repair the roof (the first patch job having been temporary), but they were going to require affidavits from all the potential heirs to the property. Because she did not have a relationship with her husband’s children, she was unable to contact them, and she was stuck again. Stimpson’s case fell through the cracks.

Fast forward to January 2020. New to the CHCS team, Sofia Mosquera, director of  Housing & Health Unit, started hearing from her staff that Stimpson had been calling. Stimpson was telling them she received a letter from PTRC saying she is “pre-approved” for services; she appeared not to understand why they had not completed the work in the first place. Mosquera realized that Stimpson must have been dropped from the queue when she failed to reconfirm her information. Due to the limited capacity of their team, CHCS had not followed up with cases they thought had been taken care of.

By this point, Stimpson had been without heat for more than three years and her housing conditions were worsening. Key partners started getting unorthodox: At an Invest Health meeting, team leader Stephen Sills, director of CHCS, told the group about Stimpson’s situation and offered to match any donations they could provide to help her—not from their organizations, but from their own pockets. The group raised hundreds of dollars that night. Brett Byerly, former executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, released an “open call” for contractors through his networks and on social media. Within days, Crossover Roofing not only offered to redo Stimpson’s roof, but also to do it pro bono. Within weeks, they had installed a new roof and addressed many structural issues that prevented proper furnace installation, so that when her second application (facilitated again by CHCS) was approved, she would be ready.

Finally, by February 2020, Stimpson’s roof had been repaired and PTRC had accepted that the tax office recognized Stimpson as the owner though she doesn’t have a deed. (In other cases, UNCG has had to get pro bono lawyers to help clear people’s title before they can qualify for services.) PTRC came to install Stimpson’s furnace, but a final plot twist ensued. When the contractors arrived, they noticed standing water settling under her home—a sign that she had plumbing problems that would prohibit the work from going forward. The Invest Health team was dead set on seeing Stimpson through to the end and was able to use the remaining donations gathered at the Invest Health meeting and some matching funds from PRTC to fix the plumbing. On Thursday, March 5, 2020, after being in the system for 14 months, Mary Stimpson finally got her heat.

This saga is representative of many residents of Guilford County and around the country and reveals incredible gaps in accessing services that are supposed to ensure safe, healthy housing. According to the American Community Survey data, more than 9 percent of individuals over 65 years old are in poverty, and 24 percent of homeowners and 61 percent of renters over 65 are cost burdened in Guilford County. This means that more than 15,000 households are in need. If the Invest Health team had not taken up the charge for Stimpson, she could still be living in dangerous conditions. However, finding every individual in need, securing pro bono legal help, gathering individual donations, and walking each resident through every step of the process is not sustainable. Structural change in program requirements and regulations, as well as community education and empowerment, are needed to effectively serve tens of thousands of households.

Some homeowners face the circular problem of multiple structural problems at once, as Stimpson did. Others can’t get access to federal repair funds due to lack of home insurance (and the subsequent inability to get insurance until the repairs are complete). In Greensboro, home title and inheritance challenges as in Stimpson’s case are particularly common. She had never had her name on the deed, and to get it there would require an affidavit from all of her deceased husband’s adult children and their spouses stating they had no interest in the property.

With the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, supports for families to complete home repairs and energy efficiency upgrades matter more than ever. In order to more effectively address these housing challenges, we need coordinated systems for improving housing conditions using the various charitable and municipal, state, and federal funds available in a more systematic and leveraged manner. This would need to include:

  • Creating clear communications between government agencies and residents about services, eligibility, and procedures, with sufficient funding for active case management through groups like CHCS, so that eligible homeowners don’t fall through the cracks.
  • Streamlining application processes to make it easier for both government and residents, including filling out one application for multiple aid programs, and allowing applications to roll over each fiscal year so that reapplication is not needed.
  • Changing policy around inheritance to ensure that families can stay in their homes, whether it be establishing a statute of limitations on claiming ownership rights to a home you don’t live in, or permitting rights to repair and receive government-funded services for a primary resident if other owners are not reachable. This work would have to be done at the state level and needs advocates to change probate law.
  • Helping empower residents and educating them about available opportunities, so those that are able to can be proactive about ensuring they receive the repairs they need, whether that means knowing who to contact for assistance (both within the government and in the community nonprofit space), ensuring they have met all the prerequisites before submitting their initial application, or being aware that they must reapply.

The system that delivers home repair support must consider the realities of the people it most wants to serve, including title problems and sometimes the presence of multiple serious repair issues.

The Invest Health Greensboro team, made up of local nonprofits, mission-driven developers, municipal representatives, and university stakeholders who pursue health and housing equity, have come together since 2016 to support such a system with targeted changes that center residents’ needs. Together they are working to identify residents whose housing needs repair, streamline services for those residents, create job training programs in home repair and rehabilitation, and build community empowerment through resident engagement, education, and citizen science.

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