Black Belt leaders say demand for healthy home repairs higher than current project funding

·3 min read
Mayor Jacqulyn Boone of Fort Deposit listens during a session at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday. The Alabama Healthy Homes project aims to renovate residences in rural Alabama to ensure they aren't contributing to health problems.
Mayor Jacqulyn Boone of Fort Deposit listens during a session at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday. The Alabama Healthy Homes project aims to renovate residences in rural Alabama to ensure they aren't contributing to health problems.

The University of Alabama and the state public health department has officially launched a project to repair 150 homes in the Black Belt.

The Alabama Healthy Homes program will devote $2 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to improve the quality of living conditions in the region over the next two years.

But some in the affected communities say the money won't go far enough.

“We’re probably going to have more need than resources,” York Mayor Willie Lake said. “That was my main concern. We want to temper people’s expectations, because if we get 200 applications, we don’t want 200 people to think they’re going to get help.”

The Black Belt’s high poverty rates lead to a large number of residents without the means to address problems in their homes like leaky roofs and lead paint. Other environmental hazards that the Healthy Homes program seeks to address are mold, allergens, asthma irritants, carbon monoxide, pesticides and radon.

Frank Mortl III, center left, executive director of ACGIH, and Donald Elswick, executive director of the University of Alabama SafeState program in the College of Continuing Studies, talk to attendees before a session at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday. The Alabama Healthy Homes project aims to help people in rural Alabama renovate homes to ensure the structures are not contributing to health problems.
Frank Mortl III, center left, executive director of ACGIH, and Donald Elswick, executive director of the University of Alabama SafeState program in the College of Continuing Studies, talk to attendees before a session at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday. The Alabama Healthy Homes project aims to help people in rural Alabama renovate homes to ensure the structures are not contributing to health problems.

“Another thing: Our people are mostly not homeowners. The majority of them are renters,” Lake said. “It’s ‘impoverished’ for a reason. We’re called a distressed community for a reason.”

York has just over 2,000 residents, and about 760 of them live below the federal poverty line. Lake said the majority of those people are likely to have a home problem that they want fixed. He says he supports the program fully, but he doesn’t want residents to be disappointed if they don’t make it into the program.

University of Alabama project leader Michael Rasbury said they will prioritize homeowners, the elderly and those with the greatest needs. Only single-family residences are eligible for the program. On the applications, residents must provide household income, how many people live in the home and family health history.

Several other Black Belt mayors echoed concerns that their communities will become frustrated with the finite help available.

“We have limited resources. We can’t change that right now,” director of the UA Life Research Institute Sharlene Newman said. “But we’re not walking into this community and then walking away. Our goal is to really do what we can do in these communities in the long term and develop long-lasting relationships in the community every year.”

A person takes notes during a session about the Alabama Healthy Homes project Wednesday at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa.
A person takes notes during a session about the Alabama Healthy Homes project Wednesday at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa.

The Life Research Institute and the SafeState program are the two University of Alabama groups leading the project.

Newman and her colleagues acknowledged that the need for help in the Black Belt communities is greater than their $2 million can address. In addition to the no-cost assessments and repairs for 150 homes, they plan to help individual communities access more funds and grants that are available at the state and federal level to address their needs for housing and development improvements.

Mayor Latasha Johnson from Eutaw and Mayor Willie Lake from York talk with Michael Rasbury from the University of Alabama SafeState program in the College of Continuing Studies during a session about the Alabama Healthy Homes project Wednesday at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa.
Mayor Latasha Johnson from Eutaw and Mayor Willie Lake from York talk with Michael Rasbury from the University of Alabama SafeState program in the College of Continuing Studies during a session about the Alabama Healthy Homes project Wednesday at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa.

Presently, some of the small towns in rural Alabama struggle to get additional funding on their own. Many of them do not have full-time grant writers, and York Mayor Lake said the time it takes to apply is a major barrier.

Eutaw Mayor Latasha Johnson has sought at least two grants in the last year that she was denied.

“I’ve been turned down for quite a few,” Johnson said. “Like, my community center, we use it as a shelter. They turned me down to fix the roof on it. We’re in a rural area. We’re considered one of the poorest counties, and we apply for a grant, and y’all can’t help us?”

Jazmin Mitchell, a city councilman in York, listens to one of the speakers during a session about the Alabama Healthy Homes project Wednesday at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa.
Jazmin Mitchell, a city councilman in York, listens to one of the speakers during a session about the Alabama Healthy Homes project Wednesday at Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa.

All of the community leaders who attended the Healthy Homes launch were excited about bringing more resources to their towns, despite the fact the project won’t be able to help every family in need.

“This grant will really help our community,” Fort Deposit Mayor Jacqulyn Boone said. “If we can help even two or three families, that would be great. I know we can’t help everyone at this time, but if we can just start.”

Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at hhitson@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Black Belt home repair project sets expectations at launch