Grab bars, banisters, CO monitors: A housing authority helps people stay home longer

Grab bars, banisters, CO monitors: A housing authority helps people stay home longer

The Bath Housing Development Corp. recently received a $150,000 MaineHousing grant to support Comfortably Home, a program that provides home repairs and modifications to help seniors and people with disabilities remain independent and in their homes.

Over the past seven years, Comfortably Home has worked with over 270 homeowners in 15 communities. MaineHousing has supported the concept’s expansion to other regions.

We asked Bath Housing Executive Director Debora Keller how the program unfolded. Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: What inspired Comfortably Home?

Debora Keller: In 2015, when I first came to Bath Housing, I was looking at the strengths of our organization and taking a deep dive into the needs of our area. Every conversation came around to the idea that people wanted to stay in their own homes as they got older.

But there was a mismatch between their needs and the houses in which they were living. As people age, they have evolving needs. And houses in Maine are old. 

Courtesy / Bath Housing

Debora Keller

We said, ‘We have a great maintenance team that’s used to doing work orders for older Mainers. And we have all these owners who want to stay in their own homes.’

MB: What’s the average modification cost?

DK: The average is $2,500, all in. And the end results are phenomenal. 

MB: What type of modifications or repairs are involved? 

DK: When our team goes in, it’s a very interactive, iterative conversation. We talk with the participants and say, ‘How do you use your home? How could you use it better?’

Our team does basic safety – double checking smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, for example. Replacing lightbulbs, changing furnace filters. Dryer vents have been huge. It could be putting large reflective numbers on the front door for emergency responders. We’ve done wireless fuel monitors so somebody doesn’t have to go to their basement to find out their oil levels. 

We also do accessibility modification and minor repairs. We can add a riser on the toilet seat to make it easier to use. We’ve done tub cutouts so people can step into their shower more safely. Grab bars and shower wands are the biggest things we do. And second banisters — getting up and down different levels can be challenging, so a second banister can be unbelievably helpful.

We’re done a lot of stair replacements, making it easier for someone to go in and out of their house. We do winterization. We can put in window inserts to help with heating costs. 

Each home is different — it depends on someone’s needs and interest and the home itself.

MB: How do you get word out about the program?

DK: We do marketing. We have lot of social service partners that know about us. Social workers and medical practices refer people to us all the time. Inevitably, it’s word-of-mouth. There’s a story I like to tell, about a homeowner on a street in Bath who used us, and by the end of the year there were seven homes on the same street that we did work for.

MB: What’s your project capacity?

DK: With our current staffing, out capacity is to do about 60 homes every year. We’re funded to do that and we have one full-time maintenance person who does the work and a part-time liaison. 

A piece of this is that a lot of people just don’t know who to call. It’s very hard to find someone to help. You can’t find an electrician or a plumber or a handyperson to do a little job for you. And fraud is rampant, so people don’t know who to trust. Because we’re a trusted nonprofit in the community, people trust us. And it’s a one-stop shop. They call us, we do everything.

It’s a hidden gem in Maine, not just in Bath but in other areas.