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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