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Helping with Home Upkeep

Community Homeworks aids low-income homeowners

Edison neighborhood resident Barbara Horton started making payments on her house 21 years ago. Less than 10 years later, chronic and debilitating health issues forced Horton into early retirement from Kalamazoo Public Schools, where she worked for 21 years as a custodian.

When her furnace broke down in 2012, two years after she had lost her income, the work and finances required to keep up her now 100-year-old house became too much to manage on her own.

Horton found herself in the position many Kalamazoo-area residents have found themselves in — not being able to fix an aging home. One call to Community Homeworks, though, and Horton’s furnace was fixed for $10. The nonprofit organization, based in Kalamazoo, is committed to empowering low-income residents.

“A furnace fixed for $10? You can’t beat that,” Horton says. “I was so thankful, because I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

About 32 percent of homes in the city of Kalamazoo — more than 10,000 — are 75 years old or older, and more than 50 percent of homes are 50 years or older, according to U.S. Census data. These older homes are concentrated in parts of the city with the highest percentages of people living on low incomes or in poverty, according to Community Homeworks. Because of the age of their appliances and building materials, these older homes are more costly to maintain, repair and upgrade, and there is a real need for post-purchase support for the homeowners.

Older homes also are less energy-efficient, resulting in higher utility bills for owners. Often the costs become overwhelming to individuals and families struggling to make ends meet.

Low-cost critical home repairs like Horton’s furnace repair, educational workshops, and weatherization and energy efficiency have been the three core areas of emphasis for Community Homeworks since it was founded in 2008. The goal of each of its programs is to empower homeowners to be able to maintain their own homes and make improvements that sustain the homes well into the future as energy-efficient buildings.

“We’ve seen remarkable savings for low-income families through the weatherization program — sometimes almost $1,000 a year,” says Shaun Wright, executive director of Community Homeworks.

A year after Community Homeworks fixed her furnace, Horton reconnected with the organization through Habitat for Humanity, and since then Community Homeworks has helped Horton insulate her walls, ceiling and attic and provided a new hot water heater, furnace, two windows and a door for her house. Horton estimates that Community Homeworks provided her with $15,000 to $17,000 worth of work and materials for about $1,700. Horton not only saved money in the costs of these repairs and upgrades, but continues to save on energy costs, freeing up that money for food, education and medical costs.

“I am so grateful,” Horton says. “I’m feeling good about this house now. They gave me a good start in bringing my home up to code and making it livable. I’m going to pick up where they left off.”

To help families redirect the savings they realize from weatherization efforts, Community Homeworks is adopting a model that teaches financial literacy and budgeting as well as saving money through energy efficiency and repair skills. The result, Wright hopes, will be low-income families moving out of poverty.

“Energy savings through weatherization is an investment that you do once and the savings continue,” says Kristina Nguyen, program director. “It’s a great thing, to be able to help someone out of an emergency, when fixing something critical might break the budget. But if you can make a permanent adjustment in the cost of your house, then you have a chance to focus your attention and energy on something else.”

Focusing her attention on something else is exactly what Horton has been able to do since her home was weatherized. She started frequenting home-improvement workshops offered by the organization and learned something about herself.

“I love to learn,” she says. “Getting into that classroom environment at the workshops helped me figure that out, so I went back to school for the first time in 36 years and enrolled in KVCC (Kalamazoo Valley Community College). In my first semester, I had perfect attendance and a 4.0 grade point average.”

The impact of Community Homeworks reaches beyond homeowners like Horton and into the communities where they live.

“We all benefit when families are thriving,” Nguyen says. “Our kids are safer. We’re safer. That’s why we want people to be engaged with what we’re doing.”

Community Homeworks is offering a chance for people to engage with the organization at its Furnace Fest Oct. 10. This third annual Community Homeworks fundraiser, to be held again at Boatyard Brewing Co., raises money for new furnaces to be donated to community members.

The event will feature wood-fired pizza from Camzies Pizza; music from the band Joe Wang and the Test Pilots; and the release of Gimme Shelter, a new Scotch ale from Boatyard that’s brewed especially for Community Homeworks. Gimme Shelter also will be available at restaurants and pubs in the greater Kalamazoo area, and a percentage of its sales, as well as proceeds from Furnace Fest, will go to Community Homeworks.

Tiffany Fitzgerald

As Encore’s staff writer, Tiffany writes — a lot. She is responsible for our Upfront, Savor, Enterprise and Good Works features every month, as well as other stories in the arts. If that wasn’t enough, she is also the editor of FYI, our new family magazine that debuted last month. When we aren’t working her to death, she hangs out with her husband and two sons and dreams of having the time to complete Pinterest-worthy projects.

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