Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato
Hilary Lewis could jump for joy.
“It’s a huge, gigantic relief,” Lewis says, detailing the home repairs that Rebuilding Together has helped her complete over the last three years — new, stable steps outside her back door, a new roof, new kitchen cabinets and countertops, some much needed stripping and painting.
Lewis, 68, never thought she’d own a home. She and her siblings faced a difficult childhood, and the financial stability of owning a home often seemed out of reach. Then Lewis enlisted in the United States Army and served six and a half years, a marked point of pride. After receiving an honorable discharge, Lewis bought a 1914 craftsman in Summit Lake.
For more than 30 years, she has lived in the same house, on the same block.
With a rapidly aging housing stock and a growing number of residents over 65, Akron isn’t prepared to house the number of residents who will have unique safety and accessibility needs as they age. Rebuilding Together is hoping to change that, one home at a time, by covering the cost and installation of small home repairs and safety updates for older adults and people with disabilities.
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Chris Seamon, director of Rebuilding Together Northeast Ohio’s Safe at Home program, says clients like Lewis are abundant: older adults, struggling to make ends meet on fixed incomes, often without close relatives to rely on or the skills and resources to make even small home updates or repairs on their own.
“I just have to say, until Rebuilding Together came along I had no hope,” Lewis says. “I come from a family of extremely disadvantaged people. We had it tough, and so as a result, sooner or later I was going to need [Rebuilding Together’s] help.”
In Akron, more than 35% of the city’s 97,163 housing units were built before 1940. An additional third were built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was made illegal. Without costly and time-consuming maintenance, older homes can pose serious health risks as residents age.
According to U.S. census data, only 10% of housing units across the country have both a step-free porch or entryway, and a full bathroom and bedroom on the first floor. In Akron, multiple sets of stairs, the absence of sturdy handrails, small door frames or showers and bathtubs with no grab-bars begin to pose significant health and safety risks for Akron’s homeowners as they age.
Seamon says installing grab-bars, repairing or replacing handrails, installing raised toilet seats and repairing staircases can help older adults stay mobile in their own homes.
“The goal is to try to get people to stay in the houses they already have by fixing them up and helping them preserve those memories, and all that value and equity they’ve put in over the years,” Seamon says.
There are an estimated 90,000 people over the age of 65 living in Summit County. According to a vital statistics brief released by Summit County Public Health, nearly half of them live alone, and around 32% report having one or more disabilities that could make it difficult, or nearly impossible, to live independently.
Between 2014 and 2019, more than 38,000 older adults visited an emergency room in Summit County after being injured during a fall at home.
Between 2014 and 2018, 271 older adults died from accidental falls in Summit County — a number Seamon says could be lowered significantly if older adults had consistent access to the types of home repairs and safety adjustments Rebuilding Together’s Safe at Home program helps provide.
Seamon took over the Safe at Home program in January 2020 and has shifted the program’s focus to smaller home repairs and safety adjustments throughout the pandemic. He’s handed out dozens of home safety kits — which include smoke alarms, CO2 detectors, lightbulbs and fire extinguishers — across 18 Ohio counties.
“From our point of view, I know those little changes definitely help people,” Seamon says. “It’s minor stuff but it’s stuff people don’t think about or think they can put off. Something as simple as address numbers. If you call the fire department and they can’t find your house, that’s a safety issue. People don’t think about those things.”
Seamon, who spent his teens doing construction work with his father, does every repair and installation himself, and says limited funding and community visibility have limited the kinds of work the agency is able to do in client’s homes.
While Seamon takes on dozens of small home repairs each year, he says the repairs and accessibility adjustments he’s able to provide aren’t always enough. For instance, he can’t always help clients with plumbing or electrical issues due to budget and liability constraints. He’s found cheaper and safer solutions, like installing solar-powered flood lights instead of re-working old or hazardous wiring.
“There’s so many times I go in and they ask me to fix something and I can’t because we don’t have the budget,” Seamon says. “There are so many instances where we don’t make the impact that we’d like — mainly because we lack the capacity. I often leave houses thinking, ‘There’s so much more I could do for them.’”
Larger repairs or remodels, like roofs and walk-in showers, are often tackled during a series of Rebuilding Days each spring. Lewis’s new roof and kitchen cabinets were installed during a designated Rebuilding Day by a large group of volunteers through the agency’s national partners, which include the NFL, Spectrum and Lowe’s.
Rebuilding Together has a national office in Washington, D.C., and more than 140 affiliates across the country, which Seamon says vary drastically in terms of their individual budgets and capacities.
In Northeast Ohio, Rebuilding Together operates with a team of just six full-time employees, while larger affiliates in cities like New York and Pittsburgh have full construction crews on staff.
In Summit County, Rebuilding Together partners with the city of Akron to help fund the City of Akron Minor Home Repair Program, which covers the cost of labor and materials for larger home repair projects to major home systems. — repairing, replacing or installing roofs, electrical systems, furnaces and plumbing.
Akron housing and rehabilitation administrator Doug Taylor says the Minor Home Repair Program typically funds between 100 and 125 home repairs every year for older adults and Akronites with disabilities, with a budget of around $5,000 per repair.
Taylor says the program prioritizes residents with emergency repair needs, but often ends up with a backlog of residents in need of assistance.
Seamon says for many of his clients, asking for help is a big step — especially when clients have important emotional ties to their homes.
“A house isn’t just the building you live in. Houses can be homes, but those are two different things. Homes have the memories and the smells and the laughter you can no longer hear, but you can,” Seamon says. “That’s why I do things like try to save bannisters. It’s those small things that people appreciate, because they realize that this is a home. It isn’t just a roof over my head.”
Lewis, who plans to stay in her home for as long as she’s able, becomes emotional when she talks about raising her two daughters in the house she still lives in.
“I don’t want to leave here. That’s part of the reason, because I’ve got my gut behind it,” Lewis says. “I don’t want to leave this house. My children were [raised] here. I was married. The love of my life lived here with me. It’s important to stay where you know you were loved.”
If your home is in need of repairs, you may qualify for assistance.
Please call the City of Akron’s Housing and Community Services Division at 330-375-2050, or Rebuilding Together Northeast Ohio at 330-773-4100 to learn more.
H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.