The housing stock in East New York is old, with nearly half of the buildings in the neighborhood constructed before 1947. For homeowners, the aging structures mean more repairs, and often more costly repairs. For senior homeowners living on fixed incomes or owners whose modest take-home pay is swallowed by their monthly expenses, these repair costs can sometimes mean the difference between financial stability and potential foreclosure.
That’s why Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement of the Home Fix program to fund repairs for low- and middle-income homeowners Wednesday is worthy of celebration. The program will be a boon to homeowners and their renters in neighborhoods like East New York, where a combination of older housing stock, the need for repairs and stagnant wages has made it difficult for homeowners to afford repairs, as our recent study on East New York housing showed.
Existing home repair support is simply inadequate to meet demand, according to our research. At any give time, many home repair programs are closed to new applications after exhausting their funds. Programs that are open have restrictions or long waiting periods. Having a new source of City funding for repairs, paired with counseling as with Home Fix, can help to support financially precarious homeowners in neighborhoods like East New York.
How Repairs Can Stabilize Homeowners
Dealing with emergency repair needs can lead a homeowner to hold off paying their mortgage, and push them to default. For seniors, it can also spur them to take out a reverse mortgage because they can find no other financing solutions. Lenders can foreclose on a home if a homeowner with a reverse mortgage fails to make repairs to their property.
Many homeowners in East New York and other neighborhoods throughout the city also rely on income from rental units to pay their mortgage. But if they can’t afford to maintain the unit, then they often can’t rent them out. “It’s really hard for a senior homeowner to try and fix it up to be up to par and to rent it out,” one homeowner told us.
Unaffordable home repairs were named by 63% of homeowners as the biggest challenge they faced in a survey we conducted earlier this year as part of our East New York study. The cost of a typical roof repair job can start near $20,000, and any costly repair can be burdensome to homeowners in working neighborhoods, our research shows.
Home Repair Programs Maxed Out
The current landscape of affordable home repair programs for low- and moderate-income homeowners is fragmented and narrow in scope. Many programs that receive public funding are only open to people with good credit or are limited by eligibility requirements. And even if they are qualified, many of the programs have reached their limits. One grant program receiving the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation funding reported exhausting the year’s funding by July; other programs are open for even shorter periods.
Even if loans or grants are available, it’s often a challenge for homeowners to understand the full range of help out there: There’s no common way to apply to all of the programs, which can be run by non-profits or government entities with options differing by borough and neighborhood.
But let’s say all of those obstacles can be overcome, and the homeowner is able to apply for one of the few grants or loans they are eligible for. Unfortunately, the available assistance may be insufficient to pay for the amount of work required, leaving the homeowner to come up with the rest of the money — a daunting prospect for people on fixed incomes.
More Home Repair Help Needed
The mayor’s announcement is a major triumph for advocates like us who have been working to highlight the need for improvements to existing home repair programs that offer loans and grants. But more can still be done.
For instance, the City can look to other jurisdictions for ideas on how to further provide service to homeowners who need to make repairs.
One example, Philadelphia, recently passed a .1% hike in its real estate transfer tax to add $100 million for home repair grants with the aim of eliminating a three-to-five year waiting list. That funding can also be applied to long-term disability modifications – key to helping seniors to age in place — as well as energy-efficient retrofits.
“These funds help repair roofs, fix heaters, replace sewer pipes, and enable other repairs that not only help a homeowner’s quality of living, but help keep them in their homes by providing these much needed repairs that may be prohibitively expensive otherwise,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said back in May.
Besides looking to other cities for innovative solutions, the application and underwriting procedures for current home repair programs in New York City should be integrated streamlined. It may also be necessary to rethink eligibility requirements with the goal of stabilizing at-risk homeowners and preserving affordable housing.
Those recommendations aside, we are tremendously excited about the City’s new program. Financially-strapped homeowners who are struggling to pay for repairs need all the help they can get. With this critical support, these homeowners — and their renters — can thrive, and our communities can continue to flourish.