| August 16, 2016
DURHAM – When it’s rainy and windy, a fast drip of water flows from a hole in a bedroom ceiling in the Browns’ home.
“Drip, drip, drip, drip,” said Renee Brown, 52 of Durham.
The hole looks like a crumpled tear in the popcorn ceiling, surrounded by rippled, brown water marks.
“If the hole on the inside of the house looks this bad, I can only imagine what the roof must look like,” Brown said.
Brown and her husband have owned their Malbry Place home for 23 years, but they can’t afford to fix the leak.
They started having problems with the roof about eight years ago and had it patched.
“We were both working then,” said Renee Brown, who works as a research assistant at Duke University.
But in 2003, Douglas Brown, 52, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Now, he is struggling with kidney problems and has had to leave his job in maintenance at the Durham Housing Authority.
In April 2015, the couple asked the city to put them on its minor repair list. They catch the drops in a big bucket. But the longer they wait, the worse the leak gets.
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” Renee Brown said about their options.
The Browns are one of about 80 people on a waiting list for the city’s minor repair program. The program offers minor repairs, valued at $9,500 and less, for disabled and elderly homeowners at no cost.
As city officials continue to research opportunities to create affordable housing in Durham, some community organizers are advocating to strengthen programs that help owners stay in their homes and, ultimately, improve housing conditions throughout the city.
“I think in this particular moment, where we are having so much neighborhood change, and it is becoming increasingly unaffordable, I think ensuring that we retain opportunities for bringing up the quality of housing without displacing,” people is key, said Mel Norton, an organizer for Durham For All who has studied gentrification in Durham. “The housing market is just so ravenous right now.”
The program is important because when people, often elderly or disabled, can’t afford to keep up their house, it puts their biggest asset at risk, said Blake Strayhorn, president of Habitat for Humanity of Durham.
“Without it they sometimes are faced with eviction and an unhealthy living situation,” he said.
The waiting list for the city’sminor housing repairs program had about 80 properties as of June 30.
The city’s minor repair program is a significant part of preserving affordable housing, said Lorisa Seibel, director of housing services for Reinvestment Partners, an agency that provides housing counseling, financial planning and other services. The challenges, however, include that people often have to wait for more than a year for urgent repairs, such as a leaking roof, no air-conditioning in the summer time or heat in the winter.
The city’s current minor repair program has a budget of nearly $300,000, up from $200,000 the prior year.
To qualify people have to be 62 or older, or disabled and their family income can’t exceed 50 percent of the area median income. For a family of one that is $24,750 to $46,700 for a family of eight.
The waiting list as of June 30, had about 80 properties. Two properties had been on the list since 2014, another 14 since 2015 and the rest were put on the list in 2016.
About 30 of the requests include issues with the roof. Other requests mention deteriorating floors, a need for handicap accessible ramp or a hot water heater and an HVAC unit.
During that time, small problems can become big ones, people on the waiting list said.
Seibel said any future city program should include housing counseling to help homeowners prepare for future challenges.
City officials are exploring how such programs would be a part of its affordable housing strategy, “but it is way early in the game,” said City Manager Tom Bonfield.
The city may create a pilot program under the Mayor’s Poverty Reduction Initiative, he said. “Most likely it is going to be something we would look at with some of the nonprofits,” Bonfield said.
The current minor program is somewhat limited because it receives federal funding and must follow U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, which can make responding to requests quickly more difficult, Bonfield said.
“We have to figure out a way to provide some level of funding and support,” that doesn’t require bidding, contractor inspections and oversight, Bonfield said.
The pilot program could be in place as early as fall, if the city can find a nonprofit to partner with, Bonfield said.
Representatives of two other programs that offer home repairs in Durham, Habitat for Humanity in Durham and Rebuilding Together of the Triangle, said their waiting lists are also full.
When a person applies to the city’s minor repair program, the city does a preliminary assessment to see whether the person and the house qualify. Then the jobs are prioritized and put on a list that is put out for general contractors to bid on. The city does two bid packages a year with a total of about 30 homes, said Reginald Johnson, director of the city’s Community Housing Department.
Challenges include finding work that falls within that $9,500 budget, he said.
“We have to be able to solve whatever the issue is,” within that budget, Johnson said.
Patricia and Leon McClendon are hoping their roof will hold long enough for the city to works its way down the waiting list.
At this point, they said, it’s their best option for repairing the leaks that are discoloring their ceiling.
“Unless, we borrow against the house,” said Patricia McClendon, 64, “but how would I pay that back?”
The McClendons reached out to the city in August 2015, and recently heard back from an individual in June that said about 80 people were ahead of them.
Patricia McClendon, a certified nursing assistant, lost her job working in a woman’s home in September. She works part time for an 85-year-old widow occasionally and sometimes helps her friend out at a hair salon while she is looking for full time work. Her husband, Leon, is on disability after having two heart attacks since 2009.
They have lived in their light gray with white trim Gurley Street home for 24 years. Their roof started leaking about five years ago, and they got it patched, which insurance covered. It leaked again two years ago, but insurance wouldn’t cover it that time, Patricia McClendon said. They are still paying off the $800 bill to fix it, she said. Since, they have started noticing little patches of discoloration and peeling in their ceiling, but they are struggling to pay the bills they have.
“With my Social Security, it is enough to pay mortgage and a few other bills, and that is it,” she said. “And I am still left with $500 or $600 in bills.”