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Sound Rural Housing: A Condition for Safety and Health

posted Oct 12, 2016, 5:27 AM by Josie Maroney

Sound Rural Housing: A Condition for Safety and Health

Many years ago I learned some basics about rural housing from Richard L’Hommedieu, who, at the time, was Director of the Chenango County Planning Department. Richard was retired military and brought much of what he learned in his military career to his work at the Planning Department. He had a “can do” attitude and was focused on a strategy of making investments and improvements to address housing needs in Chenango County.

During the late eighties and early nineties, the Chenango County Planning Department accessed state and federal housing grants and initiated a mobile home replacement program, as well as programs to upgrade septic systems. I can remember Mr. L’Hommedieu explaining how each rural home requires its own infrastructure which makes rural housing, from construction to maintenance to renovation, an expensive proposition. While urban, and many village and suburban homes are connected to municipal water and sewer systems which share costs, rural homes generally require their own systems, resulting in significant initial and maintenance costs. When systems fail, replacement costs can be prohibitive for those on low or fixed incomes. If a well or septic system needs to be replaced, other home repairs and improvements may have to go by the wayside.

So how does this impact the health of rural homeowners? When you travel the countryside and see houses in disrepair, think beyond the peeling paint. Does the home have safe drinking water? Is there a septic system, and if yes, is it working properly? Is the wiring safe? Is there a heating system, and if so, is it safe?  Are there carbon monoxide and smoke detectors? This is not an extensive list but does suggest some of the ways substandard rural homes can impact health and safety.

With the economic challenges of our region and a significant and growing number of older residents living on fixed incomes, the age, quality, and safety of our rural housing stock is both an individual and community concern. While code enforcement can be helpful, especially with new construction and renovation oversight, many rural homes have safety and potential health issues that remain unresolved.  

The Rural Broome Counts (RBC) Housing Supplement published in July 2016 provides information on the state of housing in rural Broome County. Equally important, the RBC Housing Resource Guide for Rural Municipalities, also published in July 2016, provides information on local housing agencies, as well as New York State and Federal Housing programs that can help rural communities and homeowners with housing needs, including repairs, energy improvements, and funding for homeownership. I would encourage community leaders and local elected officials to consider how they can support housing needs in their community. An investment in rural housing services and programs is an investment in the health and safety of seniors and others who struggle to afford and maintain their homes. One final thought: There is an economic health benefit - a community with quality, safe, and affordable housing is a community people want to live and work in.

Jack Salo
Executive Director, Rural Health Network of SCNY