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Local nonprofit does its part for affordable housing by helping low-income homeowners stay in their homes

'It's so much more cost-effective'
Robert McCrary poses inside the entryway of his Avondale home. He has grey hair and a grey mustache and is wearing a black and white plaid shirt.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-11 16:42:34-04

CINCINNATI — Robert McCrary’s wife, Verline, had lived in their Avondale home since 1960 by the time the couple got married nearly 40 years ago.

After she died in 2019, McCrary vowed he would keep everything in the house just as she left it and stay there to honor their love and her memory. But keeping that promise got more complicated after he fell and injured himself so badly that he needs a wheelchair to get around.

“At one time they were talking about putting me in a nursing home,” said McCrary, who turned 82 in May. “I said, ‘No, no, no, no. I can’t go there. I’ve got a house to get back to.’”

He did get back to the house -- with help from People Working Cooperatively, or PWC.

Paddock Hills-based PWC helped make repairs and accommodations to McCrary’s home to make it safe for his return. The property’s hilly lot made a wheelchair ramp impossible. But PWC installed railings from McCrary’s driveway to his front door, and the nonprofit is working to make the door from his kitchen accessible so he can spend time in his back yard.

“That meant a lot,” McCrary said. “Being able to stay in this house.”

This picture shows a portrait of Robert McCrary and his late wife, Verline He has his hand on her shoulder, and they both are smiling.
Robert McCrary and his late wife, Verline.

McCrary is one of thousands of low-income homeowners that PWC helps each year. As elected leaders, union officials, pastors and housing advocates discuss ways to expand affordable housing in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, PWC President Jock Pitts said he hopes they will keep in mind the importance of preserving affordable housing that already exists in the region.

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“When we talk about affordable housing, it’s generally new development. Well that’s not PWC’s mission. Our work is preservation of existing housing. It’s so much more cost-effective,” Pitts said. “There’s a role for both of them, to be sure. But what we do is preserve existing housing for people who have lived there – oftentimes for generations.”

PWC has been doing that for 46 years.

‘The most essential of the essential’

The organization helps homeowners in 20 counties across the Tri-State, Pitts said, and has worked in just about every community except Indian Hill.

“We do essential repairs, emergency repairs, for people’s homes so they can stay there safely, securely and more healthfully,” Pitts said.

Those repairs include everything from plumbing to roof work to handling problems with heating and air conditioning systems. In recent years, PWC’s work has been expanding to include such things as remediating lead paint and replacing moldy cabinetry to make homes healthier for the adults and children who live there, Pitts said.

PWC’s $11.7 million annual budget consists of donations from individuals and corporations and grants from regional funders along with local, state and federal agencies. The funding sources determine who qualifies for help, Pitts said, and how much PWC can spend on repairs for individual homeowners.

Jock Pitts is smiling in this portrait. He has a grey beard and mustache and grey hair cropped close. He's wearing a tie, button-down shirt and suit jacket.
Jock Pitts

In a typical year, the nonprofit does as many as 10,000 jobs, he said. PWC served far fewer in 2020 because of the limitations of the coronavirus pandemic, he said, but made repairs that were even more critical.

“What we did last year were the most essential of the essential repairs,” Pitts said. “If there’s no heat, no water, no plumbing, we were in there doing that work all year long for the most vulnerable people across our Tri-State.”

That work can be especially important in neighborhoods where redevelopment is boosting property values and tax bills.

“As we do new development in these neighborhoods, it does put a pressure on those people that are existing homeowners there,” he said. “And, you know, they’re on a fixed income, almost always. As the taxes go up and so forth and these new things happen, they can’t accommodate all that.”

That’s one of the reasons that any talk of expanding and preserving affordable housing also should include a discussion of homeownership, said Jeniece Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Greater Cincinnati’s fair housing organization.

Jeniece Jones is smiling in this photo. Her wavy, black hair reaches almost to her shoulder, and she is wearing a dusty rose-colored blouse.
Jeniece Jones

“What we see and what we’ve heard for years now is that concern when neighborhood changes start to happen,” Jones said. “You know, ‘What does that mean for our family and being able to keep this home or these homes in our family?’ So it’s become a discussion of, ‘Okay, are we going to be able to do this? How do we do this? Is there anything available to us to help us?’”

Peace and joy

Helping families preserve their homes helps to preserve generational wealth, Jones said, giving families equity to support higher education or entrepreneurial ventures.

That preservation of wealth ends up being a byproduct of PWC’s work, Pitts said, rather than having low-income homeowners forced from their homes into government-subsidized care facilities.

“If we’re able to keep someone safely in their homes for a few thousand dollars, it is such a more cost-effective solution for all of society,” he said. “And it is what that person wants, almost exclusively.”

Robert McCrary's Avondale home is pictured in this photograph. it has grey siding and white and blue trim. A railing leading up to the front steps is visible in the photo.
Robert McCrary's Avondale home.

It certainly is what McCrary wants.

PWC’s latest repairs are the most recent in a series of improvements and upgrades the organization has made to his house since 2000. From new insulation to a new furnace and energy-efficient appliances to help with the installation of a storm door that McCrary had to order special to fit his home, PWC has been there to help, McCrary said.

“It’s just so much that they have done,” he said, including repairs to a detached garage that PWC volunteers completed.

“When they got through working on my garage, they knocked on my door, we had prayer and everything else,” McCrary said. “As soon as I get my strength back and get out of this chair, the ones that did my garage, I would like to invite them over and have a nice cookout for them, and we can have some fun.”

McCrary said he will make apple pie from scratch and has a recipe for homemade barbecue sauce that is out of this world. Pointing to a plant near his front porch, he said he’s already growing the tomatoes he’ll need.

“I would like for them to come back and just sit back and enjoy the peace and the joy that they brought to me in this house,” he said. “Because it really made me feel good.”

Robert McCrary poses in the living room of his Avondale home. A patterned rug and two chairs are visible behind him.
Robert McCrary in the living room of his Avondale home.

More information about People Working Cooperatively is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on problems we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.