With roof repairs, wheelchair ramps and grab bars, Habitat for Humanity helps a generation age in place

By Regence
December 07, 2023
home repairs

A loose floorboard or slick bathroom tile doesn’t seem like a huge concern to many of us. But letting home repairs slide can lead to accidents that send people to the emergency room.

Putting off accessibility or safety upgrades can also overwhelm older adults and make it harder for them to live independently.

Consider a retired Navy Veteran who breaks a rib after his walker catches on the steps to his front door.

Or an 84-year-old former teacher whose stroke means she can’t keep up with a roof leaking so badly, a neighbor says “the moss is the only thing holding it up."

After experiences like that, these homeowners might not feel safe at home — and their families might not want them to live on their own anymore.

“We firmly believe that housing is a foundation for health,” says Melinda Musser, director of communications for Habitat for Humanity Portland Region. “It’s difficult to tackle your health issues if you don't have a safe place to call home.”

Musser and other affordable housing advocates are trying to address a concern that affects about 8 million households, according to U.S. Census data.

Increasingly, people 65 and older have trouble safely moving about their homes. This includes daily activities like climbing stairs, turning on faucets, reaching kitchen cabinets and getting in or out of the shower. And it’s likely to get worse. In 2020, older Americans made up nearly 17% of the population — their largest percentage to date. By 2040, almost 22% of our population will be older than 65.

“The need for aging-accessible homes is one of both health and economics, as fall-related injuries impose costly tolls on older people,” a Census report notes. “Coupled with the growing size of the older population, it is necessary to consider how the functional design of homes may affect older people’s ability to live safely and comfortably.”

Home safe home

In recent years, this is where Habitat for Humanity has stepped in. The national nonprofit is known more widely for its new construction programs that make homeownership accessible to people who otherwise can’t afford to buy property. But it also has a repairs program that helps those who are already homeowners.

“We see a lot of folks who apply to the Habitat home repair program who are living in unhealthy conditions, with mold, mildew, a leaky roof, or they lack an accessible ramp,” Musser says. “We want to help folks stay in their homes, age in place, and not have to move to another community, or even worse live on our streets.”

In Oregon and Washington state, where affordable housing is rare, local Habitat affiliates bring in needed fixes — grab bars in bathrooms, repairs to heating and cooling systems, removal of fall hazards like loose boards or ripped carpet, and more. They can also take on bigger jobs to address structural problems that the homeowner or their family can’t afford to fix, like updating a roof or replacing a porch damaged by dry rot.

Wheelchair ramps are another common request — and the need for a ramp is often time-sensitive after someone gets hurt. Habitat’s team can usually install a ramp in a matter of days, saving the homeowner thousands of dollars because they can be discharged sooner from a hospital or rehab facility after an illness or injury.

“We decided to focus our program on aging in place and the senior population because so many of them are living on limited incomes and are often physically unable to do the work themselves,” says Tracey Sorenson, director of community engagement for Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity. “We're hoping that people can remain safely and comfortably in the homes that they have owned for years.”

Since the programs’ inception, the Tacoma program has helped more than 260 people stay in their homes. Portland’s program has brought needed repairs to about 450 people.

Each affiliate’s guidelines to qualify for repairs are slightly different. In general, the aging-in-place programs serve people who are 60 or older, own their homes and earn less than the median income in their community. The requested repairs also must qualify as safety or health concerns.

To fund the program, Habitat works with public agencies focused on aging, individual donors, and philanthropic partners like Cambia Health Foundation, the corporate foundation of Regence, which has made healthy aging a priority for its philanthropy.

“Our vision is to advance equity through whole-person health, and addressing social drivers of health, like housing, is incredibly important to achieving that,” says Cambia Health Foundation President Peggy Maguire. “We believe that physical and mental health, as well as social drivers of health, are deeply connected and interrelated; secure and stable housing has direct impact on the overall health and well-being of older adults. By investing in Habitat’s repairs program, we hope to help older adults maintain independence while building social connections so they have access to resources needed to live and age well in their own homes.”

A constellation of needs

Projects like Habitat’s repairs program can help address what public health leaders call “social determinants of health.” These are the nonmedical things that contribute to our well-being. They’re structural, rather than individual, and have a big impact on how healthy or unhealthy someone will be in their lifetime.

Social determinants of health include:

  • Income and job security/insecurity
  • Education level
  • Basic needs like food and clothing
  • Stable housing and safe living/working conditions
  • Access to affordable healthcare
  • Being subject to discrimination
  • Living in places where there’s war or other structural conflicts

According to the World Health Organization, social determinants account for anywhere from one-third to one-half of a person’s health and quality of life. Given this outsized impact, it’s not hard to see why public health advocates are looking for ways to address social determinants before people get very sick or develop long-term health conditions. It’s about making sure that all people have access to what is needed to live as well as possible for as long as possible. 

“As we think about health care, it doesn't just mean going to a doctor,” says Claire Verity, president of Regence BlueShield. “Health care is also the community we live in and the resources that are available to us,” she says. “Whether that is housing security, food security, mental health care and wellness, it all works together.”

Along with her role at Regence, Verity serves as a board member of Habitat Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties, where she’s helping raise awareness of the repairs program.

Housing doesn’t just provide a roof over your head, she points out. It’s also a way to stay connected to family, friends and neighbors — and that has significant impact on your health.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen loneliness and isolation on the rise, especially in older generations. In fact, the CDC calls out social isolation as risky as smoking and physical inactivity for older adults. It’s also linked to a significantly higher risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke.

Given that context, Verity says, the Foundation’s support of the home repairs program has a direct connection to the health and well-being of the communities Regence serves. “A lot of people don't really see those things as interconnected. We do.”

Evolving partnerships

Cambia Health Foundation’s support of Habitat can address the housing element of social determinants of health, Verity says. And it can also help bring other partners to the table. “Where we are focused is in trying to help create a tighter fabric — a tighter weave — between organizations that support someone’s health. It's really looking at how we knit that community together because these aren't silos.”

When community-minded organizations work together, they can address other social determinants like employment. For instance, Tacoma’s repairs program does a lot of roof work. To keep up with demand, they’ve partnered with a free local training program to offer on-the-job experience for people seeking careers in roofing. Many trainees are service members transitioning out of the military and hoping to become roof contractors. After training, they’ll be able to earn a living wage to support themselves and their families.

The Foundation’s investment in Habitat’s repair program evolved from a long history of matching Regence employee donations and supporting their volunteerism, Maguire says. The last five years, Regence employees have generated more than $150,000 in donations to Habitat which includes a 50% match that the Foundation makes on all employee donations. In that same time, nearly 550 employees have given their time through volunteerism with Habitat, some participating in volunteer builds with their coworkers, too. While the repairs program work is often too specialized for volunteers to do safely, Regence employees have joined Habitat for yard cleanups and debris removal after repairs are done.

“The relationship with Habitat works on so many levels because of our shared values in caring for the well-being of people living in our communities,” Maguire says. “The Habitat partnership is really about neighbor helping neighbor, so everyone has the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.”

As the years go on, Habitat hopes to help even more neighbors through home repairs. In Portland, for instance, the nonprofit’s strategic plan calls for 50% growth in the program over the next five years. That’s partly because it can be difficult to find lots to build new homes on, and partly because it takes less time and resources to repair someone’s home than to start from scratch, so Habitat can serve more people this way.

Musser describes the Portland region’s approach as an “all-hands-on-deck situation.” It’s ambitious, but necessary.

“We’re attacking the housing crisis from many different angles,” she says. “Home repairs and new construction as well as advocating for policies that directly support affordable homeownership. We want to help everyone have a safe place to call home.”

Jillian Cohan Martin is a journalist and content strategist based in Portland, Oregon.