Partnership offers free repair work to Pittsburgh homeowners

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Leslie Blake calls her home "a refuge in time and in trouble." It's a phrase she picked up from her mother, who purchased the house after she retired in 1970 and lived there until she died at 97 a decade ago.

Ms. Blake, 66, of Homewood North, said she moved into the home in the 1980s to take care of her mother and has worked to keep it as comfortable and welcoming as possible for her entire family since then. She adopted two boys in 2008, now ages 7 and 9, and her 11-year-old granddaughter also currently lives with her.

Last May, after Ms. Blake's sister died, her 56-year-old developmentally delayed niece moved into the home as well.

Losing her sister was difficult, Ms. Blake said, and made supporting her family more stressful. To add to her troubles, Ms. Blake's house was in need of repair with a flat roof and a chimney having had structural problems for years that were never properly addressed.

Yet when a young woman came to her door in September to discuss community services available to senior citizens, including home repair opportunities, Ms. Blake did not immediately jump at the help.

"A lot of us, we're kind of skeptical," Ms. Blake said. "As I heard a lot of seniors talk, they wouldn't allow people in the house because they've been ripped off enough. You can't even believe that someone's going to do something for nothing."

But Ms. Blake did end up taking advantage of the home repair services, which were offered at no cost to her as part of the city of Pittsburgh's Sustainable Home Improvement Partnership. The program, which was launched by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in October 2011 with a $500,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation, repairs the houses of veterans, seniors and disabled and elderly residents through a collaboration of the city and local nonprofits.

Last week, the program received additional grants of $500,000 and $75,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Pittsburgh Foundation, respectively.

Seventy-five homes have been repaired through the program so far, said Rebecca Delphia, chief service officer in the mayor's office. Most have been located in the Larimer, Homewood, East Liberty or Garfield neighborhoods. With the additional funding, another 75 homes will be repaired in the Hilltop area and in Homewood.

The partnership revolves around four repair agencies that rely on different combinations of contractors and volunteers to complete work for eligible Pittsburgh residents.

Steve Hellner-Burris is executive director of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, one of the four agencies and the fiduciary for the Pittsburgh Foundation and Mellon Foundation grants. He said his agency conducts outreach in areas where funding is available by partnering with community-based organizations.

Ms. Blake said workers involved with the program, who would generally come to her house in groups of five to 10, began by repairing the flat roof at the back of the building, which had leaked into the bathroom and the room where her granddaughter sleeps.

"If they had not done anything else, I would have been happy as I could be," Ms. Blake said.

But volunteers and contractors also fixed the house's cracked chimney and changed the electrical box, among other tasks, Ms. Blake said. People were at her house Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., September through late November.

Mr. Hellner-Burris said the work can range from fixing a broken window to more extensive renovations of a home, with costs from $1,000 to $20,000.

Lori Szramowski, 54, of Garfield also received services through program. Contractors hired by Nazareth Housing Services, another one of the four agencies, replaced the siding on her home. Ms. Szramowski -- who three years ago started having problems with arthritis and had to have both hips and one knee replaced -- said she could not have afforded to pay for the work.

"I could not have had it done on my own," Ms. Szramowski said. "I would have had to take out a loan for it, which I could not afford to pay because I'm on disability."

While the repair agencies existed before the start of SHIP, the large grants have allowed work to be concentrated in neighborhoods of high need, Mr. Hellner-Burris said. He said home repair can improve other community issues such as the tax base and public safety.

"We're keeping homes from going vacant because we're stabilizing them," he said.

The program is part of the city's servePGH initiative, which encourages city residents to become involved in community service.

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Gavan Gideon: or 412-263-4910.


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