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Program to assist seniors with home repair gets needed help

For three years, Helen Rettew struggled with a colicky kitchen faucet, a leaking toilet and a water-damaged floor.

“I could only get very cold water or very hot water so it was hard to wash dishes,” she says. “I used a bucket to catch the water from the toilet and my floor was a complete mess.”

Senior Minor Home Repair Program

NCCo resident Helen Rettew discusses her experience with the Senior Minor Home Repair Program.

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Program to assist seniors with home repair gets needed help

Fixing those problems was a daunting prospect for the 75-year-old widow. She lives on a fixed income. Her son moved to Florida three years ago.

She found help through the Senior Minor Home Repair Program, funded by the federal government and administered by New Castle County. Rettew received a $2,500 grant and the services of friendly, competent contractors, who replaced her faucet, put in a new toilet and bathroom plumbing, and installed a laminate floor in her kitchen.

The only downside was she spent more than a year on a waiting list before the funds became available for the job. Agencies in both the public and private sectors say there are more people who need help than there is money to get the job done.

In coming months, the remaining 217 seniors and people with disabilities on the county’s waiting list will get help faster, thanks to a one-time infusion of $424,000. The funds were discovered during an audit of the county sheriff’s department and earmarked for the home repair program.

The county expects the new funds to be available by July 1. In the past year, only 75 seniors received grants for repairs.

Senior Minor Home Repair Program

New Castle Co. Executive Paul Clark offers an overview of the program and its benefits.

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Program to assist seniors with home repair gets needed help

“This program has been very successful in helping people to stay in their homes,” says Paul Clark, county executive. “The contractors who do the work also will benefit from the additional jobs.”

Clark says he learned firsthand what a difference a repair program can make when he was a New Castle County councilman and visited a home where a wheelchair-bound senior was caring for a handicapped child, who also was in a wheelchair.

“They had no ramp, the windows were leaking and there were termites in the house,” he recalls. “The changes the county made had a tremendously positive impact on their quality of life.”

In addition to $2,500 grants, seniors can receive an additional $7,500 in deferred, interest-free loans, to be repaid when the house is sold or the title is transferred.

“We’ll be able to do more substantial repairs,” says Carrie Sawyer Casey, community development and housing manager for the county Department of Community Services. “You can do one big-ticket item, a roof or a furnace, as well as smaller projects, maybe a door or weather stripping.”

Seniors age 60 and older with a household income of $45,500 or less—that’s 80 percent of the county median—are eligible. Casey says 86 percent of the people in the program have incomes that are less than 50 percent of the median. Seniors in Wilmington and Newark are not covered because those municipalities operate their own programs.

She expects the demand for repairs to increase in coming years, as both the county’s population and inventory of homes grow older.

“New Castle County has an aging housing stock, with a lot of housing that was built in the 1940s and ‘50s,” she says. “Even though many of our seniors have paid off their homes they don’t have the money for upkeep.”

Rettew’s house in Prices Corner was built in 1930. Several years ago, she received $2,700 in emergency funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development because the electricity in her home was not up to code.

A keen reader, Rettew learned about the county repair program at the library in Elsmere, where she picked up a copy of Happenings, a quarterly publication put out by New Castle County.

“There are a number of programs out there but often people don’t know where to turn,” she says. “And when you do find a program, you have to do the paperwork and follow through.”

Both government and the private sector offer help for old and disabled people, who are unable to do repairs themselves or pay someone to install new windows or patch the sidewalk. That is especially important because tight credit has made it more difficult for seniors to get home equity loans, Casey says.

At Lutheran Community Services, a nonprofit group in Wilmington, about 100 homeowners age 55 and older receive help each year, says Steve Tindall, development director. The majority are widows who live alone.

LCS provides minor repairs for seniors and disabled people of all income levels on a sliding scale. Homeowners with incomes above the median pay up to $25 an hour. Seniors who are living below the poverty level receive services at no charge.

“There is a strong need to provide repairs for people who are especially vulnerable to fraud by unscrupulous contractors,” he says. “We could grow the program much larger if we only had the funding.”

Most repairs cost $200-$300. The agency’s corps of part-time handymen undergo background checks before they are sent to homes to fix broken windows and busted locks. They handle a variety of chores, including putting screen doors back on hinges and replacing worn stair treads.

They can’t replace a furnace or do plumbing, electrical work or roofing.

“The jobs most seniors need are not the jobs contractors do,” Tindall says. “You aren’t going to get a contractor out to fix a broken doorknob.”

Mark Smith of Community Services Corp. is the contractor who works with Newark Senior Center to provide repairs for city residents age 50 and older.

“The intent is to help the senior age in place,” he says. “We can help them to do that by installing handrails, grab bars and taller toilets.”

Smith says elderly homeowners are overwhelmed by the prospect of attempting repairs on their own because they can no longer safely climb a ladder or operate power tools.

“Those gutters have been on the house for years and now they need to be replaced,” he says. “It’s a daunting task for an older person.”

Alexis Lemar, the center’s social service director, says repairs are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis. Seniors with an income of $41,000 for a single person and $47,000 for a couple are eligible.

“Roofs are a big one, as is leaky plumbing,” she says. “We can do the small things, like patch the sidewalk.”

The center helps 12 to 15 seniors each year with grants of up to $2,000. The city provides the funds. Households can reapply every three years.

“Most of these seniors are on Social Security, with very limited income,” Lemar says. “The need is far greater than we can handle because the money is not there.”