When technician Dustin Shaber arrived at a small home on the east side of Tucson, he was prepared to measure a broken glass door and order a replacement. The homeowner had called in the request to Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, and Shaber had been dispatched to complete what sounded like a quick job.
But when he arrived, he noticed dark staining on the home’s mortar and a thick layer of algae growing along the exterior wall — something highly unusual for a home in the Arizona desert.
Concerned, Shaber asked the homeowner if she had a leak. “I mostly do plumbing,” he told her, “and what I’m seeing on the wall is symptomatic of a pretty major water leak.” While at first hesitant to talk about it, the homeowner eventually divulged that there was a problem.
She led Shaber through her home, which was covered in two inches of standing water. A broken bathroom faucet ran constantly into a clogged sink, which overflowed onto the floor. As a result, her possessions were moldy and unusable, and she was months behind on her water bills. The pipes were so backed up that the toilet had long stopped working. Overwhelmed and living alone, the homeowner couldn’t figure out who to call about such an enormous issue, which she feared she couldn’t afford to fix.
What began as a simple home repair illuminated a dire situation for a low-income homeowner.
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According to a 2016 report by the Center for American Progress, 30 million U.S. housing units “have significant physical or health hazards, such as dilapidated structures, poor heating, damaged plumbing, gas leaks, or lead.” By some estimates, poor housing conditions such as these result in health care costs in the billions of dollars.
Such conditions are exactly the kind of overlooked problems that CHRPA’s crew of technicians are trained to solve. In 1982, the Tucson Mennonite church began a small home repair project. Thirty-five years later, that project is now CHRPA, which services upwards of 1,500 low-income households each year across the more than 9,000 miles of Pima County, which has a poverty rate of 18.4 percent.
Many clients are elderly, have disabilities, or are single parents with young children; many live on fixed incomes. After paying for groceries, transportation, medical or dental care, and household goods, there’s little money left for home repair, however critical the problem may be. About 10 percent of homeowners spend more than half their income on housing.
“We prioritize issues of health and safety,” said CHRPA executive director Scott Coverdale. “If we learn of an elderly person who might be medically frail and they don’t have cooling, we go as soon as we have a crew available … Or someone living on $745 a month social security and they pay $350 to the mobile home park, so they literally don’t have the money to fix their cooler or hire a plumber.”
Coverdale and his team of technicians — many of whom are volunteers — conduct emergency repairs ranging from fixing rusted-out pipes and broken water lines to patching up leaky roofs and electrical problems. They also make disability modifications, building wheelchair ramps, widening doorways, and installing shower seats and grab bars. Technicians regularly meet homeowners with disabilities who, previous to modifications, haven’t been able to leave the house or enter the bathroom. Nationally, of households that spend over half their income on rent, between 35 and 40 percent contain someone with a disability.
Technicians often meet people who have been living without cooling for years, some of them in metal-sided trailers in the middle of the desert — a situation particularly dangerous for the medically vulnerable, and one that can lead to hospitalization. CAP reports that “having a working air-conditioner reduces the risk of death from extreme heat by 80 percent,” but “one in five low-income households do not have air conditioners, and many cannot afford the electricity to run them … Low-income households typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs compared with 3.5 percent for other households.”
Coverdale said, “A condition that can be resolved with a $23 cooler pump and an hour of volunteer time ends up costing the community tens of thousands of dollars and the suffering of an individual.” Over the past 10 years, extreme weather events have cost the United States more than $240 billion per year, which includes related health care costs from the burning of fossil fuels.
– Scott Coverdale
Before moving to Tucson, Coverdale spent years in Africa and Central America working in advocacy and community development. When he moved to Tucson 18 years ago, he worked construction. While he enjoyed the work, he said “I got a little tired of tearing out a beautiful kitchen and putting in an even more beautiful kitchen.” So he began working with CHRPA. “We’re not just technicians,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is respond to the human need, not just the technical need.”
The organization has forged partnerships with various organizations and agencies across the county. In the case of the homeowner with the standing water in her home, Shaber worked with caseworkers to advocate for a new, safe residence. In other cases, hospitals will refer patients without cooling or water, or the fire department will alert them to a housebound homeowner in need of a wheelchair ramp. CHRPA currently partners with Tucson Water to replace older toilets with newer low-flush toilets to conserve water.
“If someone is isolated or vulnerable, we absolutely want the referral,” said Coverdale. “Even if we have too much work to do already. We want to know about the person in a trailer in the desert with no cooling or no water. It’s really hard to find that person.”
CHRPA receives its funding in a variety of ways, including individual donations and grants from foundations. It also receives material donations — such as work trucks — and funding from utility companies. Unclaimed utility deposits are put into a fund that CHRPA can use for certain home repairs, such as cooler replacements. Tucson Water supplies them with plumbing hardware, including pipes and kitchen faucets. And the organization receives funds from city and county community development block grants and from HUD.
In October, CHRPA volunteer Don L. wrote about responding to a request from a woman named Reglinda, who was suddenly living alone after her husband passed away. During her husband’s long illness, home repairs had not been kept up, and there were several doors that no longer locked or closed. “I don’t feel safe being here alone,” Reglinda told the CHRPA staff. “I love my little house, but I can barely sleep at night because it doesn’t close up anymore.” Volunteers Ted and Don spent two days replacing weather stripping, installing a front door threshold, fixing door jambs, and replacing doors.
“It is one job of hundreds, one house of the myriad homes we visit, one client of the multitude,” wrote Don. “But for Ted and I and Reglinda, there is a transaction of good will that went beyond the $527 of doors and hardware.”