Volunteers help Austin residents repair their houses

May 7, 2015
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James Woods is enjoying the renovations recently made to his Austin home.

The 45-year resident of Austin was one of dozens of West Siders whose homes got special attention April 25 from Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago, a volunteer organization that works to revitalize low-income housing and communities.

Volunteers from the Oak Park branch of U.S. Bank and union contractors who donated their time painted the walls of Woods’ home and made plumbing repairs.

Woods said he’s grateful Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago chose his home for its annual National Rebuilding Day.

Another Austin resident, 73-year-old Lillian Sanders, told the Chicago Tribune she felt “very, very good” as volunteers painted her bungalow, made other home repairs to the home and planted tulips in the backyard.

The volunteers were just as happy to do the work.

“We take the model of warm, safe and dry, then apply it, and see how we can better help and serve the community,” Alfred Burns, a U.S. Bank manager, told AustinTalks.

“It’s definitely something that’s worthwhile, and you’ll never forget being able to provide services to a person who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do it,” Burns said.

Disabled and elderly Chicago-area residents who are low-income homeowners are chosen through an application process; there were 600 applications this year. The group has repaired more than 1,500 homes since it was formed 24 years ago, executive director Wanda Ramirez told the Tribune.

The goal is to improve accessibility and provide improvements that will leave the home brighter and healthier, according to Rebuilding Together Metro Chicago.

The organization assigns volunteers to one neighborhood and tries to repair houses in that area for three years to maximize the group’s impact, Ramirez said.

While he applauded the work that was done, longtime community organizer Elce Redmond said banks and other financial institutions need to do more to help struggling homeowners.

“They’re assisting some seniors to do repairs on their house,” said Redmond of the South Austin Coalition Community Council. “That to me is useful to a point, but a lot of it is sort of a massive publicity stunt by the banks to say that they are doing their part.”

And their part, in Redmond’s opinion, should be focused on providing Austin residents with affordable mortgages to maintain their homes, preventing mass foreclosures in the area.

“The banks themselves need to work closely with community organizations and other housing advocates to assure that families aren’t losing out on their homes,” Redmond said, noting that thousands of Austin homes have been lost to foreclosure in recent years.

In the first six months of 2014, foreclosure proceedings were filed against 203 properties in Austin, down from 293 the first half of 2013, according to the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization that studies fair lending, wealth creation and financial systems reform.

Since 2007, the Woodstock Institute reports that foreclosure has been initiated on 5,730 properties in Austin.

Redmond said he wants banks to do a better job of providing mortgage reductions to families in need.

“There’s this major bureaucracy that prevents folks from trying to save their homes,” Redmond said, adding the process homeowners must go through to save their homes is unnecessarily tedious.

“They can’t get their reduction because they can’t deal with these massive amounts of paperwork,” Redmond said. “A lot of folks want to save their home, but you’ve got to put so much into it.”

U.S. Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America should make the reduction process simpler, Redmond said. That would give families struggling to maintain their homes due to a financial crisis like the loss of a job or medical bills a fighting chance, he said.

Burns of U.S. Bank said a financial institution’s goal is to help people stay in their homes.

“It’s always an effort in the community to try and help, so U.S. Bank is always working with various organizations to try and help revitalize the area and turn things around,” Burns said. “From a personal stand point, we always want to help individuals to stay in their homes, so that’s probably the biggest focus – allowing them to stay.”

There’s no easy answer when it comes to home foreclosures, Burns said, but partnerships with organizations like Rebuilding Together is a step in the right direction.

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