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Golden Repairs

A study shows that as many Tucson homes turn 50, cash-strapped owners are finding problems--$1 billion worth

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World War II and Howard Hughes brought many changes to Tucson. The most lasting was a rapid population increase, which resulted in massive housing developments sprawling across the desert.

"The number of 50-year-old housing units is set to explode," says longtime community activist Tres English. "There are likely to be a whole lot of them which need to be rehabilitated, but that work is beyond the (financial) means of the owner. A majority are occupied by people who don't have a lot of extra money."

Fifty years is considered a magic number for housing, a time when unaddressed structural and mechanical problems may lead to substantial deterioration. The implications go beyond just the individual unit, since entire neighborhoods of aging homes can quickly go downhill.

That's why English thinks it is important to determine the actual condition of the tens of thousands of homes included locally within this housing stock. Since U.S. census data is not very helpful, he obtained a $28,000 grant from Pima County government to study the situation.

City of Tucson demographic guru Dave Taylor sees real advantages in English's approach to the issue.

"The original quality of the materials and construction of some of this housing may not have been to certain standards," Taylor says. "We just don't know. We don't have a measure of the building problems, thus (we) operate in a vacuum and make guesses. This study will give (policy-makers) some idea of whether this housing issue is a '2' or a '7' on a 10-point scale of importance. Are the problems aesthetic or life threatening? We also don't have a sense of how much repair work has been done."

To answer those questions, English identified three separate parts of town with 18,000 total houses. Their residents have diverse incomes and live in homes built between 1945 and the end of the '70s.

Pinpointing 600 masonry-built homes, English had a survey hand-delivered to the owner occupants, and has thus far had a credible 22 percent return. Some of the homes have also been physically inspected. While not surprising, the results do confirm long-held suspicious.

About half of the houses in the survey reported problems with the roof, plumbing or furnace, English says.

Assuming the cost of repairs might average $10,000 per home, English estimates a total bill of $1 billion facing the owners of Tucson's older homes, many of whom can't afford the expense.

"Seventy percent of the respondents (with housing problems) reported money as a issue for doing home repairs," English says. "The lower on the income scale people were, the more likely they were to have multiple problems."

Midtown resident Vivian Higley, 81, certainly meets that income criteria. "At my age," she says, "you can't just go out and pull down a job."

Fortunately for Higley, four years ago--when she and her daughter bought their 1950s brick home--it had a relatively new roof and mechanical equipment. If that hadn't been the case, Higley says she doesn't know what they would have done. "We couldn't afford to do major repair work if it was needed," she says.

According to English's study, thousands of Tucson households are in the same situation. They lack the funds necessary to make needed home improvements.

Peggy Hutchison heads the Primavera Foundation, which operates a small, affordable housing program. One of the questions her agency is facing, she says, is how to assist owner-occupied repair efforts.

"If the owner can't afford it," Hutchison asks, "how do we help before their home crumbles underneath them?"

Tom Cowdry, chair of the Tucson Metropolitan Housing Commission, says he believes this is a complex question which will require a variety of solutions.

"The decaying housing stock will take government assistance of some type to address," he says. But Cowdry also believes involvement from both the private sector and nonprofit community service organizations will be needed.

Meanwhile, before submitting his final report to the county by the end of the year, English will be surveying the owners of frame-built houses in the three areas, along with rental property owners.

"You don't see a sudden drop in housing condition, but a gradual deterioration," English says. "Thus, there is a danger of the physical condition of the entire center of the city deteriorating" as the housing stock ages.

If, on the other hand, the needed investment is made to maintain these homes, English believes that troublesome scenario can be avoided. His question: "How do we get people to invest in their own property?"

English supports a large-scale effort to provide matching government grants to homeowners along with a one-stop shop for housing loans. He would also include a home repair and job training program in which homeowners could be taught to do as much of the work as possible for themselves. Concurrently, many people would be employed locally to make the fixtures and supplies required for the rehabilitation effort.

English sees this idea as a huge opportunity for the community. "We're at the forefront and could become a leader in redevelopment technology that will sweep the nation," he says. "There are 50 million houses in the United States in similar shape.

"We can make Tucson a much nicer and more affordable place to live while creating thousands of local jobs. We can get people excited about these improvements and having their neighborhoods be on the way up, not on the way down."

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