Cash-poor, equity-rich seniors get needed help

Times Staff Writer

On a quiet residential street in Cypress, where a basketball hoop waits for children to come home from school, secrets lie behind the pink facade of Sylvia Finn's house.

They are hidden by universal assumptions in a wealthy suburb, where water, electricity and heat are taken for granted. In Finn's house, more than half the rooms go dark at sundown. The 65-year-old grandmother shivers through the winters without heat. The oven doesn't work. The toilet or sink doesn't work in each of three bathrooms.

"I don't have any help," said Finn, who is raising a teenage granddaughter and manages with a monthly $1,500 Social Security check and funds from refinancing. "My priority has been my granddaughter, and as things fell apart, I just looked the other way and counted my blessings."

Housing experts say she is like thousands of other older, low-income residents in Southern California who have significant equity in their homes, if not outright ownership, but have trouble maintaining them.

The owners say they do not have the money to keep up their homes, lack the ability to move and would rather suffer than ask for help. Others distrust contractors, and they fear using up the equity in their homes before they die. They are also confounded by refinancing options.

A growing number of seniors are getting help from nonprofit organizations that provide basic home maintenance.

"We have a nation of homes starting to crumble around the people who live in them," said John White, a vice president with Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit organization that makes free repairs to seniors' homes. "There is a tremendous need for services to low-income homeowners. There's a huge gap between those who need the help and places to get it."

No local statistics are available, but a recent study by the Orange County Office on Aging estimated that half of the nation's seniors live in substandard dwellings that pose safety threats.

"If you are older and you have a 40-year-old home, chances are you have deferred maintenance and limited ability to fix the home," said Steve Carpenter, executive director of the Orange County affiliate of Rebuilding Together, which fixes up 200 homes each year.

Rebuilding Together's 12 Southern California branches repaired more than 424 houses last year. Donated materials were installed by teams of about 30 volunteers on each house.

While many senior homeowners are reluctant to ask for help, Carpenter said, the organization does receive calls from those who have friends who were helped or because a city code enforcement office has warned about violations.

With the graying of the baby-boom generation, experts predict that more people will face similar problems. For example, in Los Angeles County, the over-60 population is expected to increase 82% to 2.25 million in 2020, according to government statistics. During that same period, the over-60 population in Orange County is predicted to jump 64%.

The problem isn't so much about poverty -- in Orange County, only 5% of homeowners older than 75 live under the federal poverty level -- as it is about lack of family support, uncertainty on how to tap into a home's equity and lack of awareness of programs that can help.

The Tampa, Fla.-based Home Improvement Research Institute, which works for manufacturers and retailers, estimates that Americans will spend $311 billion in home improvements in 2006, about $2,745 per household.

But that kind of money often isn't available for retirees.

If seniors "don't have a family support network, once you move into retirement, unless you have a healthy pension plan, addressing the issues of homeownership becomes much more difficult," said Karen Roper, executive director of the Orange County Office on Aging and Homeless Prevention.

The trend is reflected across the country, said White of the national office of Rebuilding Together. He said cuts to federal programs that funneled money to homeowners to make repairs have exacerbated the problem. For example, the Handy Worker Program, which does minor repair work to homes in Los Angeles, has been substantially cut in recent years.

Grants and low-interest loans are available through many cities, but many seniors are unaware they exist or think they won't qualify, experts said.

Major problems, such as inoperable heating systems, can sometimes be fixed for less than $100, yet older residents fear unscrupulous contractors and will sit for many winters in the cold instead of risking being taking advantage of.

Despite owning a mortgage-free home in Torrance, Kathleen Kendall, 66, said she didn't want to refinance or take out a reverse mortgage to fix her heating system or widen doorways to accommodate her walker and wheelchair. "I hate the idea of another bill," said the retired library research assistant who has arthritis. "I have enough already."

So for three years, she stopped watching television and reading her favorite books because she couldn't get into the rooms that contained them in the home she bought in 1959.

After reading about Rebuilding Together in a local paper, Kendall called the organization, which sent volunteers to widen her doorways and build a ramp to the front door. Even though the house still has no heat because repairs will require expensive asbestos removal, "I am so grateful that these people who might never see me again were willing to help me," Kendall said. "They made such a difference in my life. They are helping me live life to the fullest."

In Laguna Hills, retired school district secretary Anita Smith, 68, spent most of her energy in the last decade raising two grandchildren, 9 and 11, whose parents are unable to care for them. Maintaining the three-bedroom house she purchased for $98,000 in 1979 was not her first priority. Yet with only about $1,900 in monthly income from Social Security and adoption assistance funds, she could not afford to move, either.

She said she resisted applying for a reverse mortgage, a loan for older, equity-rich homeowners which does not require repayment until the borrower sells the property or moves into a retirement community. Smith wants to leave the equity for her grandchildren, whom she fears may be young when she dies.

Over the years, she cringed as the paint chipped off the exterior of her house, as the termites gnawed at the wood and as rain fell through holes in the gutters. There was no heating in the house for three years. The house, inside and out, was not painted for nearly 20 years.

The deterioration "drives me crazy, but if I spent the money on [repairs] I would not have been able to take my grandchildren in and show them that someone loves them," she said.

She said she was hesitant to seek help, but comforted herself with the fact that she had donated to charities and knitted slippers for orphans. After her sister told her about Rebuilding Together, she grudgingly placed a call.

Volunteers recently replaced rotted wood, painted the exterior, fixed the heating system and repaired plumbing and electrical problems.

On a recent weekday, her home filled with the scent of chocolate-chip cookies she baked for her grandchildren. A Christmas tree sparkled with lights and ornaments.

Although she has received help recently, with every item that breaks in the house, she still thinks: "Now, how I am ever going to get this fixed?"

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