Yvonne Ellison has lived in her home on Whitman Street near Codman Square for 35 years. A 65-year-old divorcee, she has raised four boys here on a quiet, dead-end side street near Dorchester High School. It was a perfect spot, she says, sitting, as it does, across the street from her parents, who owned the single-family house before selling it to her in 2003.
The proximity to her folks meant that her boys were raised with the help of their grandparents and she could use public transportation to get into her job working in the Secretary of State’s office in Boston. And when her mom developed a brain tumor that eventually took her life, Yvonne was right across the street and was her main caregiver.
Last year, though, Yvonne had to make a tough decision. She was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition that will likely cause her to need a wheelchair within a few years. As it is, she can barely get up and down her stairs. She was crawling up to her bedroom at night. She fell repeatedly. The situation was only going to get worse.
“There were a whole of things wrong with the house,” says Ellison. “A tree had come down on the back of the house. The whole back wall around the gutter there had rotted out. I said to my son, ‘I give up. I’m leaving.’” But one of her sons — Kenny — said no. “He was determined. He said, ‘Ma, after all these years of fighting to keep this place, you can’t give up now.’”
The work she would need to do to retrofit her home for her disability was daunting: a handicap-accessible bathroom on the first floor, where she would relocate her bedroom, and a ramp that would allow her to bypass her front stairs and gain access to her home from a rear door. The cost, she estimated, would be upwards of $30,000.
Yvonne found the help she needed, first, through the city’s Boston Home Center, an office operated by the Department of Neighborhood Development. The Home Center’s Homeworks program had already assisted Ellison several years ago when she needed a loan to fix her roof. Now, she called upon them again for advice.
The city sent her to the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, a quasi-public agency that administers state funds aimed at assisting low and moderate-income residents and their families with housing-related problems.
MBHP administers a state fund aimed at helping seniors and disabled people find an affordable means of making needed repairs and upgrades to their homes. It is called the Home Modification Loan Program.
The program “is one of our most exciting ones because it allows folks to stay housed where they are,” said Chris Norris, executive director of MBHP. “And for most people it does this at no cost for the owner or the tenant because we use a zero interest loan. So, for the majority of them there is no interest.”
Eligible homeowners, like Ellison, are not obliged to repay the loan until the property is sold or transferred. The program loaned out an estimated $600,000 this year to 27 different applicants. It has helped roughly 200 individual households since the program was launched in 1999.
“We have adequate funding for it and we have plenty of it to give,” explained Norris. “It also guarantees that you’ll have a professional coming out to do the work and you’ll pay a reasonable rate for it. We’ve done it for many years and recently it has been expanded by the Legislature to include cognitive disabilities like autism.”
In Ellison’s case, the MBHP responded to her request for assistance within about two weeks by sending a staff member to her home to do a site assessment.
The agency then helped her hire qualified contractors – ABC Construction and Thomas Maguire – to build out her bathroom and ramp. The total loan cost ended up being just under $30,000 and the whole process – which began by filling out a loan application last November – was completed in June 2014.
“I’m thrilled. It’s so easy to access, it’s wheelchair accessible, even though I’m not in a wheelchair yet. I can live down here (on the first floor) and my sons are upstairs. It works for me because I can stay in my home as long as I need to,” says Ellison, who has returned to work part time for the state thanks in part to the new ramp. She uses the MBTA’s Ride program to get around.
Ellison needed some good news. Last year, she lost Kenny at age 44. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January and was gone within three months.
The loss was devastating to Yvonne, who still mourns his death bitterly. “At least he was able to know that I was going to be able to stay here,” she said.
MBHP also runs the Housing Consumer Education Center, a regional nonprofit office that serves as a clearinghouse for services for tenants and property owners facing trouble. It is located on Lincoln Street in Boston, but can be accessed digitally at the agency’s website. In addition to the Home Modification Loan program, the agency also administers the RAFT program— short for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition. The program can help provide grants up to $4,000 per year to eligible households to pay for rent or for utilities that might have been shut off.
For more information on MBHP, call itsa resource line at 617-425-6700.