Urbane Renewal

Rehabbing, restoring, and Rebuilding Together Oakland.

Earle Horn is a retired postal worker and WWII veteran, with a long
memory, a quiet voice, and a wary attitude. As an African American who
served with a field artillery unit attached to the US Eighth Army from
1945 to ’47, his wariness is understandable. “I was better treated as
an African American in Germany, France, and England than here,” Horn
recalled. “Think of two men — one black, one white —
fighting for freedom. Whose freedom were we fighting for? We talk in
this country about freedom and equality; it doesn’t exist, it’s all
talk and garbage.” But for all Horn’s wariness, he has only good things
to say about Rebuilding Together Oakland.

Volunteers from that nonprofit organization, which rehabilitates the
homes of low-income seniors, are providing Horn’s modest Fruitvale
bungalow with a serious makeover. “I want to be an advocacy service for
them,” Horn said as he sat with his wife, Yvette, at a dark wood dining
table in a living room decorated with pictures of President Obama,
Martin Luther King Jr., and various Afrocentric posters. “That’s what
he does,” Yvette chimed in.

On April 25, Rebuilding Together Oakland — local affiliate of
the national group Rebuilding Together, which was formerly known as
Christmas in April — will unleash 2,000 volunteers on 25 lucky
homes and eight facilities across Oakland. They will get everything
from fresh coats of paint to heavy-duty rebuilds. The Horns were lucky
to get their application approved this year, because Rebuilding
Together Oakland received three times as many requests for assistance
as it was able to provide.

What makes Rebuilding Together Oakland unique is its dedication to
keeping senior citizens in their homes. “I am not interested in
bulldozing a community to bring in housing stock the community cannot
afford,” said Kym Luqman, the executive director of Rebuilding Together
Oakland. “We want to be able to revitalize our housing stock —
particularly when the people are still in them.”

Where housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity concentrate on
building or acquiring new homes for new homeowners or needy families,
Rebuilding Together Oakland (RTO) works with preexisting homeowners who
fall through the cracks. It is not about boosting property values. It
is about heaters that work and don’t emit carbon monoxide, windows that
are not broken, and stairways that are strong and stable.

“RTO meets a high level, but forgotten need,” said Luqman, sitting
in her office in a rehabbed warehouse in West Oakland, noting that 70
percent of Rebuilding Together Oakland clients are elderly African
Americans with an income at or well below $25,000. “When you have got
the title ‘homeowner’ people think you have all your needs met,” said
Luqman. “They still have utilities, property taxes, food and health
expenses. Things like home repair fall off the radar from a financial
point of view, or they are unable to do the repairs themselves.”

Thus, one recent Saturday, weeks before the big Rebuilding Together
Oakland workday, a small team of skilled Kiwanis volunteers were busy
ripping out the Horns’ bathroom floor, resetting the toilet, replacing
sagging guttering, fixing a leaky roof, replacing a corroded chimney,
recarpeting the living room, replacing cracked kitchen linoleum, and
rebuilding 70 feet of fencing torn down by area teenagers.

Both the Horns and Rebuilding Together Oakland are getting a great
deal. “Sears is sponsoring this house,” said volunteer house captain
Dan Fichte, a commercial real estate broker and former general
contractor. “It costs a minimum of $5,000 to sponsor a house. It has a
$2,500 budget, and when we walk away we will have done $15,000 to
$20,000 worth of work.”

Such bang for the buck makes Rebuilding Together Oakland one of the
greatest little nonprofits you’ve never heard of. With a full-time
staff of four and a budget of $661,000 a year, Rebuilding Together
Oakland works small miracles. “For every dollar we raise, we give three
dollars’ worth of value,” Luqman said. Part of the reason Rebuilding
Together Oakland can get so much work done is that three construction
firms, Skanska, Cannon Constructors, and Pankow Builders donate
significant amounts of time, materials, and skilled labor.

Oakland city officials echo Luqman. Catherine Firpo, Oakland’s
Community Development Block Grant coordinator, noted that Rebuilding
Together Oakland’s contract for grant funding from the City of Oakland
has involved about forty houses a year since 2002. Even though
Rebuilding Together Oakland is slightly behind schedule this year,
Firpo is enthusiastic. “Forty houses, twelve facilities, $50,000 to
renovate — really good leveraging!”

East Oakland District 7 City Councilman Larry Reid was similarly
effusive in his praise. “I support them 110 percent,” he said. “They
truly have made a difference in my district and the lives of senior
residents. There is nothing I would not do for them other than commit
murder or rob a bank. They are an incredible organization.”

In addition to its annual April push, Rebuilding Together Oakland
runs a work month in October that concentrates on a particular
four-block neighborhood, which usually winds up looking like a cross
between a block party and a giant construction site. Eager high-school
volunteers, skilled plumbers, veteran carpenters, and Rebuilding
Together Oakland officials all keep an eye on the semichaotic
bustle.

Rebuilding Together Oakland also runs a year-round program called
Safe at Home that has installed bathroom grab bars, removable
showerheads, night-lights, and a host of other aids in more than a
hundred senior’s homes this year. Given that in 2004 Alameda County saw
2,872 senior hospitalizations due to falls, each of which cost, on
average, $37,534, this program more than pays for itself.

But it is not bean counting that gets volunteers onto a job site for
three out of April’s four weekends. Fichte, a Vietnam vet with two
tours of duty with the Seabees, explained, “Years ago I decided that I
had had a good life and decided to give back. AIDS started. People were
dying. It was like a war going on. I volunteered at Shanti, where they
had to decide if it was okay to have a straight man.”

After five years of service to Shanti, Fichte moved across the bay
and looked around for something else to do. He discovered Rebuilding
Together Oakland and has volunteered there for five of the past eight
years. Given the inevitable chaos that always ensues when working with
volunteers, he deadpanned that he needs his “construction experience
under fire.” Fichte is the guy in charge of corralling volunteers,
dealing with the homeowners, and getting the pizza.

But it was Fichte’s friend Stephen Boeri, an East Bay MUD employee,
who really explained the rewards of volunteering for Rebuilding
Together Oakland. He worked on another house in Fruitvale that was
stripped down to the studs and built back up again. “The homeowner left
for the day,” said Boeri. “She came in and cried and cried and cried
and said I never thought I would see it. That is your payoff. That is
worth more than the money.”

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