Sunday, March 04, 2007

Coley Family Housing Update: People can pull together to make things happen!

When the home of Helen Coley at 521 Woodlawn in Saint Augustine burned down, the family's plight touched many people. The home had been highlighted in Dare Not Walk Alone as an example of the inferior living conditions that existed forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, right here in the community that fought to get that law passed.

The day after the fire there was an immediate outpouring of material assistance in the community, graciously handled by the local paper, the St. Augustine Record, with aid of folk from several churches and under the eventual coordination of Chey Cobb, one of the executive producers of Dare Not Walk Alone. Chey was eventually able to get Helen and her family relocated to subsidized housing to await rebuilding of the home at 521. In the meantime, St. Johns County stepped up with a program to remove the remnants of the burned out building at no cost (if you know anything about construction, you know this is a big savings because clearing a lot really racks up labor and machinery costs, not to mention heft waste disposal fees).

Thanks to Derek Hankerson of the St John's Housing & Community Services Division, Helen and Chey have completed the paperwork for this phase. Timing of the rebuilding is not clear yet, but it will be financed in part by the donations that continue to come in (see Love Continues to Spread) and for which Helen and here family are deeply grateful. There is also some insurance money to work with.

Helen's case is an interesting example of the complexity of low and fixed income housing issues. Helen had lived in the house for nearly 30 years. There was no mortgage. But she hardly ever had enough money left at the end of the month to foot the bill for repairs and maintenance. And she couldn't afford comprehensive insurance coverage. In other words, and this is by no means a unique situation in this community, if the house is destroyed by a storm or a fire, the owner doesn't have the means to replace it. There is not enough income coming in for a new mortgage or building loan payments. Cases like this tend to slip through all the safety nets and government/private assistance programs.

But there is good news. The county really seems to be paying attention to these problems now and making a serious effort to improve the quality of housing for residents of this community. Nobody is expecting miracles overnight, but the continued concern and generosity of people locally and beyond is making a difference.

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