Curline Wilmoth (center) received help from Rebuilding Together Boston to make the bathroom in her Boston home more wheelchair-accessible. She is flanked by daughters Yvonne, left, and Doreen. (Sandra Larson/Bay State Banner)
Curline Wilmoth (center) received help from Rebuilding Together Boston to make the bathroom in her Boston home more wheelchair-accessible. She is flanked by daughters Yvonne, left, and Doreen. (Sandra Larson/Bay State Banner)
Curline Wilmoth (center) received help from Rebuilding Together Boston to make the bathroom in her Boston home more wheelchair-accessible. She is flanked by daughters Yvonne, left, and Doreen. (Sandra Larson/Bay State Banner)

By Sandra Larson
Special to the NNPA from Bay State Banner via New American Media

BOSTON — In Boston’s largely Caribbean and African American Mattapan neighborhood, the family of Curline Wilmoth, 67, 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.

Then, as happens too often when an elder returns from a hospital, Wilmoth and her family found she couldn’t safely move in or around her home. For instance, 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 Wilmoth went to the doctor or to senior center programs.

Increasing–and More Diverse–Elders

The rapidly aging United States population, especially in metropolitan areas like Boston, means that an increasingly nonwhite population of older adults with lower lifetime earnings and scant assets will grow.

In particular, ethnic elders, who tend to fall on the lower side of racial wealth and income gaps, are finding themselves unable to cover unanticipated expenses, such as home repairs or modifications, necessary for their safety. Retired homeowners on a fixed income needing a new roof or major plumbing repair, for instance, can face the dilemma that advocates in aging call being “house rich, but cash poor.”

“We know the need continues to grow,” said Sandra Henriquez, CEO of Rebuilding Together, based in Washington, D.C. But home-repair assistance is out there, if seniors know where to look, 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,” said Henriquez, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Obama administration.

Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit, has local affiliates that mobilize contractors and volunteers to perform free repairs and accessibility modifications. The organization assists about 10,000 low-income homeowners annually.

Among them is Wilmoth. 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 Wilmoth’s daughter Yvonne, 39. “Life will be much easier.”

Hard to Make Ends Meet

The older population nationally and locally is becoming more diverse. A recent report on aging in Boston by the University of Massachusetts, Boston, 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.

Boston’s senior population is projected to grow by 22,500 households between 2010 and 2030, according to data in the city’s recently released housing plan. A majority of the new senior households will have annual incomes under $50,000, according to the report.

The Gerontology Institute applied its Elder Economic Security Index to measure how much income people 65-plus need to meet their basic living expenses for essentials like food, health care, transportation and housing.

The Institute estimates that in Suffolk County, primarily encompassing Boston, a home-owning couple without a mortgage typically needs $35,256 per year — far more than double the official federal poverty level— just to get by. A single person with a mortgage may need more than another $2,000 to cover basic costs, according to the Index.

Programs for Home Repair

Henriquez, who also previously ran the Boston Housing Authority, emphasized that home repair assistance — by both government and nonprofit sectors — offers a means of tackling a problem that can push seniors into nursing homes or even homelessness.

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 city’s Home Center, which funds home repairs for Boston’s low-income 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 Boston’s Roxbury community and other neighborhoods. Provider agencies perform minor repairs such as fixing doorbells and installing bathroom 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.

Paperwork and Waiting Game

Joanne C., 70, has been struggling for the past several years to keep up with home repairs on a meager income, while caring for her ill husband. As an African American who owns her home in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood free and clear, Joanne bucks the wealth gap trend in one sense, but she’s not alone in her need to pinch pennies and seek help.

At her small dining room table in April, Joanne, who did not wish to include her last name, motioned to a pile of documents assembled for repair assistance applications.

Proving her eligibility for help has not been difficult, she said. Social Security and a small pension from her 30-plus years as a hospital diet educator bring in about $30,000 annually.

But her quarterly property tax bill went up by $100 this year. And after a harsh winter, with a faulty heat system, she is still paying off two $800 heat bills: one for the upper floors and another for a first-floor former rental unit that now serves as an accessible living space for her husband.

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 her 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, and USES will take care of some of Joanne’s small repair tasks and help her apply for major repair funds for the 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.”

This article is adapted from a story Sandra Larson wrote for Boston’s Bay State Banner 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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