Cathy Williams, President/CEO NeighborWorks Columbus
: Georgia is one of the poorest states in the country, and many of its residents are senior citizens forced to spend much of their limited income on housing. In Columbus, many older residents live in substandard housing with leaky roofs, rotting floors, inadequate or no plumbing or appliances. Though living in squalor, these people are not classified as homeless under federal definition and thus cannot receive public assistance for those without shelter. They have become the "invisible homeless," and their lives may be shortened by deplorable living conditions.
Eighty-two year old Mary Jenkins had been living in her rented Columbus, Georgia home for over three decades. As the house started falling down around her, afraid the repairs would increase the rent, Mrs. Jenkins said nothing to her landlord. The bathroom was unusable, extension cords were strung together to provide scant lighting, and she had no refrigerator. "I haven't had one of those in years," she said. The dangerous health and safety conditions seriously threatened the cancer survivor's welfare. When the landlord passed away and his heirs discovered the conditions Mrs. Jenkins was living in, they approached NWC to help.
Such deplorable living conditions are all too common in Columbus. Many seniors own their homes outright, but cannot afford to maintain and repair them or install desperately needed heating and air conditioning. The choice between eating and fixing a leaking roof becomes a matter of sheer survival. When an elderly woman is wearing everything she owns to keep warm in her shack with no kitchen or bathroom, she should be considered as homeless as the young single mother staying in a shelter. However, in 2012, new federal rules changed the way the homeless were counted, no longer including those who live in "housing that is in such bad condition it is no longer fit for human habitation." In other words, people like Jenkins were no longer included in the homeless count and could not receive assistance.
NeighborWorks Columbus has uncovered a number of residents falling between these cracks— those who are over 60 and have lived in their mortgage-free homes for decades on fixed or low incomes. To fill their critical needs, NeighborWorks Columbus created a public-private partnership to launch the Columbus Cottage Program (CCP). The program temporarily relocates elderly homeowners living in substandard housing while a new cottage is constructed on their property, placing a modest and affordable mortgage on the new home.
Once qualified under flexible guidelines, the resident is counseled on the financing process and NeighborWorks Columbus approves the loan. The homeowner moves into temporary housing and a new two-bedroom, energy efficient cottage is built to provide a safe, healthy and dignified environment for the residents to age in place. When the residents move in, they take on an affordable first mortgage costing no more than 30 percent of their income. This first mortgage includes an allowance for utilities, but a second deferred, non-interest bearing second loan can cover any costs exceeding the resident's income.
Funding from the federal HOME program provides the capital needed up front for the demolition and construction on a typical two-bedroom cottage, which costs approximately $74,000. Program Related Investment, Program Related Income, and Community Development Financial Institutions grants cover any mortgage financing gaps. In one example, a 78-year-old widow living on $20,000 a year in Social Security income can afford $500 a month in housing costs. This will support a $387 mortgage payment and $100 in utilities, so no gap subsidy is required.
The cottage program started as a "give-away" one-off program and the homes were established as life estates that terminated upon the death of the recipient, but it has evolved into a sustainable, mortgage-based program that provides safe, affordable housing to many of the city's most vulnerable residents. Cottages have been built to house many Columbus seniors, and the program will build on the success achieved through identifying those in need, providing financial counseling and partnering with government and private organizations.