New city program makes $40,000 in upgrades to 90-year-old's home

Resident qualified for lead-abatement and weatherization programs, among others

  • Bertha McCollum, 90, with her caregiver granddaughter Tawanda Wilkens, in the kitchen of the East Baltimore row home on East Biddle Street where she has lived for 50 years.
Bertha McCollum, 90, with her caregiver granddaughter Tawanda… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
November 02, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

A 90-year-old East Baltimore homeowner is snug in her home again after agreeing to a three-month exile while contractors and safety experts went to work.

Now that her house is thoroughly weatherized, lead-abated and generally made safe for senior living, Bertha McCollum took a deep breath Tuesday and said, "I was glad when all this was over."

McCollum, who is a retired Johns Hopkins Hospital cafeteria worker, sat in her living room and described how she agreed to allow a number of governmental agencies to guide her through a new Safe at Home Healthy Homes Program. The program enlists numerous groups throughout the city and state to make houses safer.

"All she wanted in her life was to live independently in the house she bought with her husband 50 years ago," said Ken Strong, a city assistant housing commissioner for green, healthy and sustainable homes.

On the down side, McCollum had to leave her home and live in temporary rented quarters outside her East Baltimore neighborhood. On the plus side, her utility bills have been lowered and she has a new energy-efficient refrigerator and stove. She even got a new sewing machine so she can hem her grandsons' trousers.

The upgrades at her East Biddle Street home cost about $40,000.

To take part in the Safe at Home program "it is best for people to call 311 to ask for a weatherization application," Strong said. "Then we can evaluate if additional healthy home services are needed. We download from 311 daily and mail out applications."

Because McCollum often takes care of her three great-grandsons, who were diagnosed with asthma, she qualified for what amounts to a safety and energy conservation housing makeover.

"We see that grandparents and great-grandparents are housing the next generation and the one after that. In these tough economic times, families are doubling up and sharing space," Strong said.

McCollum's granddaughter, Tawanda Rene Wilkens, who visits and cares for her grandmother, heard about governmental assistance available for lead-paint abatement. She wanted her grandmother to live independently and be able to remain close to her church, New Friendship Baptist on East Eager Street.

Inspectors from the Baltimore City Health Department's Lead Abatement Action Project assessed and remediated the lead hazards in the home. The residence was declared safe for her great-grandsons, Mark Williams, 12; Quran Cox, 7; and Karel Cox, 4.

The lead inspectors thought that McCollum and her granddaughter would be good candidates for other help that was available. They suggested the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning and the city's Weatherization Assistance Program.

By the time the work was over, workers had reduced asthma triggers and addressed safety hazards. They worked on pest management, installed mattress and pillow covers to reduce dust-mites and added an air filtering system to reduce indoor allergens.

McCollum, whose husband died many years ago, and who also outlived her son and daughter, was economically qualified for considerable help, housing and health officials found when they came to the home.

A dehumidifier now reduces basement moisture; she now has an air conditioner, smoke alarm, carbon monoxide detector, electrical outlet covers and cabinet locks.

The weatherization upgrades brought air sealing, insulating the attic, wrapping the hot water heater and the insulating pipes.

"This house is now 100 percent warmer," said Wilkens, who lives in Middle River.

Strong said that inspectors noticed that McCollum, who uses a cane for walking but is determined to live independently, could be a candidate for the city's new Senior Home Independence Pilot Program.

An occupational therapist assessed her home's safety needs. Another group, Rebuilding Together, installed basement handrails and a grab bar in the bathroom and corrected potential tripping hazards. Employees of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing made a home nursing visit and reviewed McCollum's nutrition, medication and health as part of the coordinated program.

The city's Department of General Services tapped the Maryland Energy Administration and Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant funding. Technicians installed a high-efficiency gas furnace, a new hot water heater, an energy star refrigerator and a low-flow toilet, and repaired a major electrical hazard in the home.

A Green and Healthy case coordinator then worked with the family to enroll them in the Maryland Energy Assistance Program and suggested they apply for the Homeowners Property Tax credit. They then began saving on utility and tax bills.

Standing outside the home, McCollum glanced sideways and said, "I have the only house on the block with two safety handrails on my steps."

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