Home ownership is a core element of the American dream. Owning a house is one of the first steps toward wealth creation, and most owners have a larger net worth than those that rent. Even in more difficult economic times, owning a house has been a way for many families to invest in their family’s future. The value goes beyond numbers: a Harvard study has confirmed previous studies indicating that owning the family house is highly beneficial to children, providing stability and better learning and living environments than renting.
Home ownership can also create problems, especially for those in the low and middle-income level. One major challenge is the need for constant upkeep. Even a brand new house will start to develop problems, or even have hidden problems that existed after or before construction that only present themselves once you’ve moved in. While most upper-income families can afford the fixes and projects that are part and parcel of owning a house, many low and middle-income families lack the resources to make some of the more expensive and unexpected issues that may occur.
The importance of home ownership and the difficulties many families encounter in providing maintenance are well known and widely recognized. The federal government and many state and local governments provide assistance programs for families that need repairs but cannot afford them.
There are several grant programs that exist to help low and middle-income families whose houses need work.
Rural families may find some relief with the Rural Housing Repair Loans and Grants Program. This program, also known as the “Very Low-Income Housing Repair Loans and Grants Program” or the “Section 504 Home Repair Program,” is designed solely for those who live far outside of major cities, in areas that are often economically depressed due to lack of high-paying jobs in rural areas. Grants are available for up to $7,500, which is enough to fix many common issues, such as leaking pipes or roofing tiles, new interior and exterior paint or fixing a broken deck or porch. The loans in this program go up to $20,000 with a low 1% interest rate. Loans are available for very low-income families, while grants are available for those who are very low-income as well as aged 62 years or older.
The Weatherization Assistance Program is there for low-income families who need immediate work before winter hits. Unlike the Section 504 Home Repair Program, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) provides very specific aid for very specific types of work. In this case, the program focuses on weatherization needs. Assistance goes toward fixing up any leaks in doors, windows or walls. Typically, those who receive aid from this program cannot use the money for anything beyond what’s necessary for weatherization purposes.
Private and Nonprofit Grant Programs
Several private, nonprofit organization run grant-giving operations for needy families who need home maintenance that they can’t afford.
The AARP helps fund the Home Repair Accelerator Grants Program, initially launched in 2013. Four separate nonprofits (Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, Greater Lansing Housing Coalition) administer the program, which helps these organizations get new programs off the ground or continue in their already-functional efforts. Each of the organizations involved has their separate program as well.
Habitat for Humanity provides several programs for different types of homeowners. The Critical Home Repair program serves elderly individuals whose dwellings are in dire need, while the “A Brush with Kindness” program provides light exterior work and weatherization. The “Repair Corps for Veterans” program, funded largely by Home Depot, provides significant remodeling work on houses owned or lived in by disabled veterans.
Rebuilding Together focuses on rebuilding and repairing houses for low-income families. The organization helped support work on over 8,000 dwellings in 2014, with hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours for tens of thousands of volunteers. The organization operates in cities across the country, with local affiliates that low-income families can contact for assistance.
State and Local Grant Program
Low and Middle-income families who are struggling to find assistance may want to turn to their state and local governments. Many have suitable assistance programs, including grants and low-interest loans. Examples include, but are not limited to, all of the following:
The Single-Family Home Improvement Program in Los Angeles provides up to $15,000 for low-income family home repairs. Los Angeles also runs a Residential Sound Insulation Program, which provides free sound insulation upgrades for families that live near high-traffic international airports.
North Carolina provides an Urgent Repair Program for elderly or special needs individuals who have incomes that are 50% below the median for the area. This is primarily a loan program, but loans are extremely low-interest with deferments and loan forgiveness available.
New York City has a Home Repair Assistance for Seniors program. This program is open to both low and middle-income elderly residents. It provides plumbing work, carpentry and electrical work, caulking and weatherstripping work and repairs on locks.
Orange County in Florida provides a rehabilitation program for needy families. This program focuses projects that “eliminate existing life, safety, health and code violations.”
Although most programs target low-income and elderly owners, all low and middle-income families can find needed assistance. Those who need immediate help can find assistance grant programs, while low-interest loan programs are extremely common. Federal programs are very limited, and the large number of applicants can make finding assistance more difficult. Homeowners should explore the full range of options provided by all levels of government and nonprofit organizations.