Thursday, September 28, 2023

Rebuilders in Bernalillo Strive to Keep People in Their Homes

"Even if we help 100 families a year, it's just the tip of the iceberg."


Carolyn Ruiz's mother was only 80 when she moved into Ruiz's Bernalillo home, a house that already needed a lot of work.

Seven years later, her mother's can still get around. And Ruiz, after working much of her life, is on a fixed income and had been unable to refinance the house since the deed included her ex-husband's name long after the divorce.

Ruiz also recognized the deferred maintenance on her home of 32 years was affecting the quality of her and her mother's lives. "I hadn't been able to put any money aside,' she said. "Basically I was putting on Band-Aids in maintaining my home."

Then she ran across pamphlets she'd picked up a few years earlier during a function at the Bernalillo Senior Center. One was for Rebuilding Together Sandoval County, which might offer her help with critical repairs.

Founded nearly 50 years ago, Rebuilding Together began in Midland, Texas, as a way to reduce homelessness and address health and safety issues, keep low-income people in their homes, and along the way enhanced the whole community.

The organization grew into a network of local affiliates in 38 states and the District of Columbia with one in New Mexico founded in 1999. That happened to be in Bernalillo less than a mile from Ruiz's home. "The man told me he wasn't sure if they could help but he could send me an application," Ruiz said.

But what had the pandemic done to a group of local volunteers willing to wield a hammer or saw while relying on some outside funding, an online and walk-in thrift store, donated materials and discounted assistance from licensed contractors? When the Signpost reported on Rebuilding Together Sandoval County in late 1999, the group was handling 10-12 projects annually with 43 on a wait list.

"We are the only group here doing critical home repairs, and the backlog is going up," said Mike Schultz, an RTSC board member and now vice president, said at the time.

Current board president Bradley Wood took over in Feb. 2020, and the next month "all hell broke loose." But as the country hunkered down, RTSC's work, considered an essential service, kept moving.

"It became even more important because people were holed up in their homes," Wood said. "Any problems they had in their homes were exacerbated."

Wood wrote a pandemic safety plan so the homeowners could trust strangers coming in to work. Meanwhile the board decided it was time for a strategic look at their operation and future direction.

"One way was to get ambitious, and we started writing grant applications for larger and different sources," he said. The group won several.

"We have one volunteer who is a gifted grant writer," Wood said referring to Schultz. "He generates all the work we can possibly do."

The board also changed the service model from primarily using donations and volunteer workers to relying more on contractors and grant funds. The federal departments of agriculture and housing and urban development have approved grants, local corporate and organizational are sponsors remain active, and Lowe's Home Improvement is a national Rebuilding Together sponsor.

Both Lowe's and Sandia National Labs through their own programs have provided volunteer crews for local projects. Sandia workers recently built an access ramp for a Bernalillo home while Lowe's sent people and supplies to build a fence for a Rio Rancho veteran.

Lowe's also funded replacing the veteran's roof and swamp cooler.

RTSC has performed work in Placitas and Algodones and has a backlog of requests that includes San Ysidro, Jemez Springs and Cuba. The seven-member board is working harder and getting smarter as it deals with grant-related deadlines and the growing workload, Wood said.

"My first year we did six houses," he continued. "Last year it was 55 families, and this year we're shooting for 100." But need will continue to exceed help, Wood added. "There are 30,000 eligible homeowners just in Sandoval County alone," he said. "Even if we help 100 families a year, it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Carolyn Ruiz was able to clear the title to her home, refinance it and address some critical work like a new water heater. All went to improving the quality of life for her and her mother only went so far.

And RTSC accepted her application. That led to a new shower, replacement of electrical fixtures and wiring in the house and garage, and restoring an outdoor spigot needed for gardening.

The organization found a plumber who responded promptly when a connection to the water heater installed by someone else began spraying water. "I believe the Lord put me in a position where I can have my senior mother with me," Ruiz said. "Having that kind of help is priceless."

More information on RTSC applications or volunteering is available at or by calling 505-896-3041.


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