by Jon W. Sparks

2017 Innovation Awards Winner – Habitat for Humanity: Aging in Place

Innovation: Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis’ Aging in Place program has served more than 350 families by making improvements to housing so seniors can stay longer in their homes.

The battle against poverty in Memphis is a long one, requiring commitment and resources on many levels. If there’s no quick solution on the horizon, there are still victories to point to, and sometimes it’s the spirit of innovation that opens the doors.

Case in point is the Aging in Place program created by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis. While Habitat is best known for building homes, it also has embraced a mission of providing repairs.

In 2012, the Plough Foundation commissioned the AdvantAge survey, which found that more than 7,000 seniors in Memphis were in need of home improvements. Most wanted to stay in their homes as long as possible, but some of the repair issues were making that difficult to achieve.

Those persuasive numbers buttressed Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization program launched in 2011 to make those critical fixes for homeowners, the majority of whom were seniors.

“We were asked to select a focus neighborhood where we could identify neighborhood stakeholders to get their feedback, see what resources were available to leverage so that we could really provide an impactful program to make the neighborhoods more sustainable,” says Julie Romine, director of programs and strategic alliances, who oversees the program.

Focusing first in the Uptown area, the program worked with the Community Redevelopment Agency to rehab more than 100 single-family home repairs.

“It was pretty sobering for our team to see the conditions that some of the seniors were living and how they had to adapt,” Romine says. Data showed some 90 percent of clients were very low income seniors — an average of $10,000 a year — with no other resources to make the fixes.

In many cases, all the seniors could do was put a bucket under a roof leak. In fact, some 90 percent of the homes need a roof repair and that needs to be done before almost anything else.

Whenever possible, the team installs grab bars in bathrooms, changes round door knobs to lever handles, puts in hand-held showers, builds wheelchair ramps, installs fire and carbon monoxide alarms, and makes repairs to plumbing, windows, and weatherization.

The program evolved as Habitat International was developing aging in place program guidelines with the AARP Foundation. But the Memphis operation was able to take it to where it is now a leader in the Habitat organization. “We heard about the Plough Initiative,” Romine says. “It was truly a circumstance of when preparedness, desire, and opportunity met. We applied for and were awarded a $3.9 million grant and leveraged that with several million additional dollars. We have served over 350 families in the last few years.” The Plough Foundation has also helped Habitat develop evaluation methods and connect to additional resources.

The Habitat team does more than fix things around the house. The construction team are Certified Aging in Place Specialists designated by the Homebuilders Association. Several team members have gotten Neighbor Works International training, which is about aging in place programming.

With this support and training, the Memphis Habitat team has developed its own policies and procedures. “We are constantly evolving and improving as we go along,” Romine says.

And it’s not just about patching up a house. The organization works closely with social services to make sure residents are getting what they need beyond a livable place.

The results are gratifying.

Clients often have their utility bills go down to the point they can afford needed medication. Many homes that have lost insurance can now have it reinstated. Wheelchair ramps mean clients aren’t confined to the house — and can get out in case of fire. 

A great deal of credit for the program’s success goes to Memphis Habitat CEO Dwayne Spencer, who Romine says, “is everything that you would hope a leader would be. He is always looking at how we can have a greater impact, serve more families, and supports our staff.” He ensures access to resources, tools, and training. “You have to have innovative and supportive leadership in order for that to happen,” Romine says.

Habitat is looking to the future as well, hoping to expand its impact.

Romine says it’s looking at a program that combines aging in place with in-home medical help where residents are evaluated and provided counseling and resources to get better healthcare in addition to a safer place to live. Habitat hopes that its partnership with Le Bonheur Healthcare Foundation can replicate the program and make further progress in diminishing the hopelessness of poverty.