Together and Apart at Home: Vital Work of Rebuilding Together in National Healthy Homes Month

June 24, 2020
by Tish King, Board Member at Rebuilding Together National

Home – a place of health and safety – has become more central than ever for most Americans, and increasingly for citizens across the globe amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While some of us are together, many are apart from loved ones as we strive to avoid making others sick. A growing number of neighbors face health and safety risks they don’t have the financial resources to remedy in order to live safely at home. Among many legacies of racial injustice in our country, we see that racial residential segregation is linked with a variety of adverse health outcomes and underlying health conditions. Sadly, this means, according to the CDC, that Black and Latino Americans suffer a disproportionate number of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. 

A safe and healthy home is essential for our wellbeing and financial security. I recognize how lucky I am. For me, growing up in a family of eight with four bedrooms, one bathtub, and no dishwasher, home was crowded, with little personal space, and often an overflowing sink and mountains of laundry on the back porch that doubled as the entrance to the house. 

Home also meant unlocked doors open to family and friends sharing that chaotic space and, whenever possible, a hot meal, heated discussion of the news of the day, and a family pet getting into mischief. 

As my parents aged, divorced, and then reconnected to live on separate floors of the same duplex, home as a place of safety had new requirements. Now it included finding a way for my mother to get up and down stairs when she was wheelchair bound from terminal cancer, helping my father safely navigate his kitchen through the fog of the vision impairment of macular degeneration, and ensuring their arthritic hands could turn door handles for quick entry and exit in a neighborhood on the edge of gentrification.    

Thankfully, I have a very handy brother who can fix almost anything and, for the things he can’t, he knows the people that he can trust to do it. And, as their kids, we’d pitch in when needed to cover those costs. But not everyone is so lucky. 

A national survey of 5,914 people by FreddieMac found that almost a quarter of the respondents across demographic groups indicated they will need major renovations in order to stay in their current home for the rest of their lives. Among those, almost half expressed concerns about their ability to afford those anticipated renovations. Those modifications are even harder to complete for families of color who lack the equity in their home as a result of decades of discriminatory lending practices. The American Community Survey found Black homeownership rates dropped from 46.3% in 2000 to 41.2% in 2015. In 2018, that rate had barely progressed to 41.7%, compared to 72.2% for white Americans.

Now as we see increasing job losses, more and more neighbors are facing dire circumstances where home repairs cannot be met on fixed incomes while juggling medical bills. Our Black neighbors, whose lack of home equity prevents them from borrowing funds and already have more underlying health disparities, are more vulnerable in this storm. People like Jewell, a resident of more than 40 years in her Nashville neighborhood, widowed with limited income and mobility. She struggled to stay warm in her deteriorating house and faced fall hazards as she tried to navigate torn carpeting and improvised wiring with extension cords until Rebuilding Together stepped in to provide free repairs. 

Neighbors like Jewell who received repairs from Rebuilding Together are nearly three times as likely to report they can comfortably afford to age in place in their homes, compared to those who have not yet received repairs.

Helping people to live and age safely in place, to avoid the loss of family connections and community, and incur the significant and often prohibitive cost of moving to nursing care, is more important than ever. Preventing falls, providing ramps for freedom of movement and installing fire safety measures are the kinds of fundamental necessities Rebuilding Together provides our neighbors in need across the country. 

These repairs, provided for free to the homeowners, help neighbors remain safely at home during these uncertain times. This is why I am proud to serve on the National Board of Rebuilding Together. I know my support is amplified many times over by the nearly 100,000 volunteers who show up and pitch in to help their neighbors and community. 

While we all wrestle with how to stay healthy at home and navigate the changes brought on by COVID-19, we also have an opportunity to reinvest in our relationships with our neighbors and the strength of our communities. That hometown spirit of working together, while remaining apart, staying socially distant and washing our hands, is what will help us care for those at greatest risk and get through this epic challenge.   

As I reflect on times of my own house filled with family and friends, and even fondly recall a sink full of dishes, I hope you will join me in supporting Rebuilding Together to help others do the same!