Her 980-square-foot home hasn’t changed much since she bought it in the late 1970s. LeRae Brigham insists she is the one who has changed over the years.
She retired from working as a janitor, moved her home from a mobile home park onto land that she owns in West Minnehaha, and now is dealing with the trials and tribulations that come with getting older. The 82-year-old has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and uses oxygen. Brigham’s daughter, DeAnn Forde, also lives with her; a stroke left one side of Forde’s body paralyzed.
Both have trouble walking.
Because she can’t step into a bathtub, Forde said she hobbles across the house to shower in Brigham’s more accessible bathroom off the master bedroom.
Thanks to Evergreen Habitat for Humanity, they will each soon have their own accessible bathrooms. Last summer, the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, better known for building new homes, expanded its repair program to help low-income homeowners stay in their aging homes.
“It’s wonderful. I can’t begin to tell you,” Brigham said. “My God, it means a whole lot to me.”
She paid someone she knew to remodel the bathroom in her bedroom a while back, but it was expensive. This time around, Evergreen Habitat for Humanity will remodel her second bathroom and have her pay a small percentage of the total cost, which is calculated based on her income.
Melissa Edwards, Habitat’s family services manager, said the nonprofit works with families who earn at least 30 percent of the median family income, which comes out to $26,370 annually. The nonprofit is working to lower that threshold to help more families.
Brigham’s sister told her about Habitat’s newly expanded repair program and helped fill out the paperwork.
“The first thing she said was, ‘No, I can’t take that,'” said Sandra Lieser.
It took some convincing to get Brigham to agree to accept the assistance. Lieser has been navigating the social service system, having signed up her sister for Meals on Wheels and securing her additional assistance through the Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities of Southwest Washington.
“There’s no shame in elderly or disabled people saying, ‘I need help,'” Lieser said. “She paid her dues when she worked.”
She said Habitat’s application process was thorough, not unlike the vetting for its homebuilding program.
“They’re very careful that money is used how it should be used,” Lieser said.
In addition to the bathroom, Habitat paid to clean the gutters and extended downspouts to keep water from going under Brigham’s home, a major benefit during recent heavy rains.
Wayne Polak, the repair program manager, said while he and his team look at problems brought to their attention, they also assess the whole house. They might end up needing to clean the gutters or remove a tree that’s too close to the home.
Many of Evergreen’s repair projects increase accessibility. That could mean installing grab bars in the shower or building a wheelchair ramp. In other cases, homeowners simply don’t have the money to maintain their home. An easily repairable problem, such as a leak in the ceiling, could become a much bigger problem if left unaddressed.
“That domino effect could be huge,” Polak said. “It can increase costwise exponentially and so rapidly.”
That’s the case with a home owned by Jennifer, who asked that her last name not be printed. She heard about the repair program from her dad, who read about it in The Columbian.
Legally blind and a single mother, Jennifer knew she needed to replace her roof but couldn’t afford the estimates she got from roofers — anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000. What began as spots on the ceilings has progressed to a roof that’s caving in.
The assistance from Evergreen Habitat for Humanity is a “huge relief,” the 44-year-old said. Her roof will be fixed after the new year and other smaller repairs will be made, such as installing a fireproof attic door.
“Not having to worry about that and knowing my daughter and I are safe is huge,” Jennifer said.
She bought her single-family home in Salmon Creek during the economic downturn.
“The likelihood of being able to afford another house, given my situation, is next to nothing,” Jennifer said.
Her home also has a homeowners association, so doing maintenance will prevent her from incurring fines. Overall, it’s relieved a major source of stress.
Evergreen Habitat for Humanity’s repair projects are open to anyone who meets the income guidelines.
Funding comes from a series of grants, including a three-year, $150,000 grant from the Vancouver-headquartered M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.
In 2011, Habitat started A Brush with Kindness, a program tackling minor repairs, weatherization, painting and landscaping. The nonprofit still helps out low-income homeowners with those small projects, but now it’s taking on more complex and costly repairs both inside and outside the home. The work “helps homeowners continue to live independently and securely in their homes.”
For staff and volunteers, Polak said, “The level of gratification is phenomenal.”