Hundreds compete for limited funds to fix roofs
David Riley, Staff writer
When it rains, water trickles through the ragged hole in Helen Cray’s kitchen ceiling and drips into a red pot that she keeps on the counter.
The roof has leaked for at least a year. Cray, 75, a retired social worker, said she has a fixed income and can’t afford to make repairs, nor can her adult children.
The city launched a roof repair program this year to help homeowners like Cray. The initiative is meant to address a costly problem for many residents, extend the life of aging housing stock and discourage people from abandoning homes that may be developing serious health and safety problems.
The response from citizens was overwhelming and may offer yet another measure of poverty in Rochester.
Some 1,173 people applied for help from the $1.9 million program — only enough funding to help some 150 homeowners.
The city selected 75 applicants in a drawing in March and plans to hold another June 19. Names of applicants who weren’t picked will be rolled into the second round.
From one perspective, the roof repair program is a story about civic engagement. Organized in part by Action for a Better Community, city residents — many of them senior citizens — lobbied City Hall last year to establish a program to help people fix their roofs.
“Hundreds of people came in to talk to us,” recalled City Councilwoman Carla Palumbo, chairwoman of the Neighborhood and Business Development Committee.
City officials said they already were planning the roof initiative, but input from the community helped shape the program — particularly a commitment to dedicate 30 percent of the funding to seniors, said Kathleen Washington, deputy commissioner for neighborhood and business development.
But from another perspective, this is another government program that can only put a dent in a larger community problem.
“People are unhappy with the raffle, but really, they’re unhappy with the fact that they didn’t get pulled and they really need it,” said Jon Greenbaum, a community organizer at ABC who helped rally residents behind the initiative. “That’s just a function of the fact that there’s not enough resources to go around.”
To qualify, applicants can make no more than 50 percent of the area median income. That means less than $23,450 for an individual, and $33,500 for a household of four. In the city, more than a third of families make less than $25,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 15 percent of city residents over the age of 65 live below the poverty line.
For the 75 people who will get assistance with roof repairs, the help can be life-changing. Among them is Evelyn Bennett, 81.
She applied for help because water has been dripping into the enclosed porch and kitchen of the 19th Ward home where she has lived for 36 years.
“My children grew up here,” she said. “This is our home.”
Bennett was among seniors who spoke up at City Council in favor of the program. To her, the outcome shows that her voice mattered.
“I cannot put it in words because it’s so helpful to so many people in my situation,” she said. “It’s not just me.”
Cray also spoke to City Council. She said she applied for assistance, but was not chosen. She’s holding out hope that she will be selected in the second round.
She has lived in her two-story house in the Marketview Heights neighborhood since 1969. She and her late husband raised nine children — five of them adopted — and sheltered many more kids in foster care.
Today, she lives alone, though her adult children visit often.
Cray doesn’t want to move. “I really don’t want to sell it because the apartments are so expensive now,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of memories here.”
The roof repair initiative, largely funded with federal money, replaced an existing city program — the Owner-Occupied Repair Program. In the past, it has offered help with roofs, but also porches, windows and other exterior fixes.
Another city initiative, the Emergency Assistance Repair Program, also used to help with roofs, among other problems. It stalled in 2013 after a city audit questioned how local nonprofits administered the program.
The emergency program now focuses on more immediate needs, such as replacing broken furnaces or hot water heaters in the winter, according to Washington, the deputy neighborhood and business development commissioner.
Residents in the past had wondered why one neighbor might get money from a home repair program while another did not, Greenbaum said.
“There was lack of trust in the system, so there was a call for transparency, which led for the city to respond with the lottery,” he said.
The first round of funding for roof repairs was divvied up by quadrant, while the second will be distributed city-wide, Washington said.
Not everyone who applied actually qualified for help. Greenbaum said many more people cannot afford to replace their roofs, but may not be eligible.
“You could still be really broke and still earn more than those income eligibility guidelines,” he said.
City officials acknowledged the depth of need for help with basic, but pressing home repairs. They said the bottom line is the program will help more people in need.
“I wish we could do more,” Palumbo said. “There’s limited money.”
Cray wishes there were more opportunities for assistance.
“Seniors need help,” she said.
How the program works
The city’s roof repair program is open to single-family homeowners who are citizens or legal U.S. residents, live in their houses and are up to date on property taxes.
Applicants can make no more than 50 percent of the area median income. That means less than $23,450 for an individual, and $33,500 for a household of four.
Participants cannot have received help from a city housing rehabilitation program in the past seven years and must agree to stay in their homes for at least three years after the repairs.
Recipients can get up to $12,000 to fix or replace their roofs, along with minor related repairs to gutters, roof flashing or chimneys. Interior damage is not covered. City-approved contractors will do the work.
The city will accept pre-applications from homeowners for its next drawing from May 19 to June 18. Applications can be picked up and turned in at neighborhood service centers.
For more information, visit cityofrochester.gov/roofrelief or call 311.
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