Keeping people in homes

Chris Callahan, homeowner services director for Loudon County Habitat for Humanity, looks over an HVAC unit that the organization recently replaced for a local family.

For years, Loudon County Habitat for Humanity’s mission for affordable housing has included critical repair in an effort to help keep local homes livable.

Lenoir City residents Rebecca and Isaac Goodman, along with their two sons, recently benefited from the program when Habitat used a grant to replace an HVAC unit that was out of service.

The couple’s son, Ezekiel, has a medical condition that requires him to be kept primarily in climate-controlled areas.

“Whenever we needed to have the (air conditioning) fixed, that’s a big expense,” Rebecca said. “Ezekiel can’t go without air conditioner. He just can’t. He doesn’t have temperature control. … I contacted (them) and said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Whenever they said it was paid for, that was a huge weight off of all of us. Something like that, you have no idea how in the world it’s going to be paid for or how you’re going to do it.”

Habitat also helped the family build a wheelchair ramp for Ezekiel.

Those kinds of repairs are some Rebecca does not believe people typically think of with Habitat.

“Habitat is so much more than what people know,” she said. “They do so much more. It’s not just a housing situation. … I know people who have doors repaired and different stuff like that. It’s that, and it’s also a support system. The community inside the Habitat family, it’s so much different than anyone else we’ve ever dealt with. Stuff like this, it makes a huge impact on our community.”

Such repairs can be vital for people in the community, Chris Callahan, homeowner services director, said.

“It’s life threatening to the seniors to be in a home with no air,” Callahan said. “They can blow window fans but that’s just a Band-Aid.”

Aging in place

Seniors have been part of the critical repair program since its inception locally, but Habitat is looking to do more to keep elderly in their homes.

As the result of a lawsuit settlement with a senior care organization based in Nashville, Habitat programs across the state have received funding for senior housing needs.

Loudon County Habitat is receiving $430,000 in grant funding to be used to establish an aging in place program that will allow seniors to live in their homes longer. The funding is available for three years.

“It’s a journey, not a destination,” Tony Gibbons, Loudon County Habitat executive director, said. “Our first year has been more focused on logistics of the grant and implementation. We have a goal of reaching a point where we’re using the more sophisticated model of aging in place with the medical professional side coming into it.

“What we’re finding is there is a tremendous need in our community and there is an incredible need in East Tennessee in ways you could never imagine,” he added.

Habitat replaced the windows in Elisabeth Gimblett’s nearly 100-year-old Loudon home.

“We identified a lot of things that we could fix,” Callahan said. “Due to the money we get from the grant, that’s what we had to work with. We identified what the most important thing in the home that’s critical. One was the air escape, energy efficiency.”

Changing out the windows lowered Gimblett’s utility bills during the winter by $50-$60 each month. For someone on a fixed income in retirement, that monthly difference can be a deciding factor in staying in place.

“When they can enable you, through grants like this, to be able to stay in your own home, I think that’s a huge bonus,” Gimblett said. “I really do. A friend of mine sold her house because her friends convinced her that’s what she should do. … Now she’s in one of the townhouses down on (Highway) 11 and she does not like it and she is not happy. I think that’s kind of sad. If I’m physically able to stay, which I intend to be, then I want to stay in my house.”

A greater benefit

When evaluating aging in place, the three critical components are keeping people dry, warm and safe, Callahan said.

That could be as simple as replacing windows, the removal of mold in the home or larger work like making a residence wheelchair accessible inside and out. Projects range in cost from $5,000-$40,000, Gibbons said.

A $20,000 project to make a home easier to move around in can lead to a savings for individuals, including medical visits for slipping and falling or for a delay in moving into an assisted living facility.

Gibbons believes the investments benefit the community as a whole.

“When you save funding on the assisted living, that’s coming out of TennCare or Medicaid or one of the big pots of money that supplements the cost of somebody moving into assisted living of some sort,” he said. “It also allows them to invest in the structure of the home versus letting it become dilapidated or run down. That allows the property value to hold versus edging toward a blighted community.

“We have a lot of communities in Loudon County where there’s a blend of rental and home ownership,” he added. “Some of them are young and some of them are old. If you see an area that starts to become blighted, that’s less value. If half of those homes are with seniors and the reason they’ve become blighted is because they can’t afford it, well, how are you going to change that? We see this as a way to invest in the community. It allows our neighborhoods to stay at the level we want them to be. … Property values going down would affect the economic base of the county.”

Hopes are to have the framework of the local assisted living program in place within the next two years. Gibbons is evaluating possible partnerships and sponsors to help the program grow beyond the three-year grant.

“Residents like to stay in their own homes, in familiar environments, in familiar communities rather than relocating and feeling like they’re less independent and they’re not in a position to thrive,” he said.