Revitalizing low-income homes: a Q&A with Rebuilding Together Atlanta’s Camille Kesler

by Rincey Abraham

Affordability is a hot topic in Atlanta right now. With home prices quickly rising, it can be difficult for homeowners with a fixed income to pay regular home expenses, like property taxes, while also affording to do basic upkeep. That’s where organizations like Rebuilding Together Atlanta (RTA) come in.

RTA is a non-profit organization that works to preserve and revitalize low-income homes in metro Atlanta. As part of the Rebuilding Together network, the organization provides low-income homeowners with critical home repairs to provide safe and healthy housing options.

RTA is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, and in honor of that milestone the organization is working to revitalize an additional 25 Atlanta homes for 25 families, seniors and military veteran homeowners.

Atlanta Agent magazine talked to RTA’s Executive Director, Camille Kesler, about the organization, its mission for the year and the need for increased awareness and work towards affordable housing.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about Rebuilding Together Atlanta?

RTA is part of a national group of affiliates. There are about 130 affiliates across the country. We have two basic programs. The first is to renovate homes of low-income Atlanta homeowners. We have a list of homeowners in need and try to care for them with sponsors who provide funding and volunteers. We provide the skilled labor and project planning.

The second program is the roof replacement program. We get a grant from City of Atlanta and HUD to completely replace the roofs of three to five low-income homeowners in Atlanta. We completely take off the roof and repair it.

Everything we do is completely free for these low-income homeowners. We have a very long list because the need is so great. Many of them are choosing between feeding their families or medicine or healthcare and repairing a roof.

Q:  How do recipients get chosen? Is there an application process?

There is an application process and there are certain criteria that they must meet. Applicants must meet HUD income thresholds for the roofing programs. For our rebuild program, homeowners can make a little bit more.

L to R: Retired RTA Program Manager Val Sutherland, Camille Kesler, current RTA Program Manager Darla Svich

Q: How many households do you try to help each year and how does that compare to the number of applicants?

Our waiting list has more than 600 homeowners on it. The need is huge. A lot of these people have been in their homes for a long period of time, maybe 30 years, and now they’re on a fixed income and they’re relying on Social Security as sole source of income. They can’t afford to keep up their homes and they still have to pay property taxes. A lot of these people can’t afford to renovate, they don’t have family or people to help them.

Volunteerism is a fundamental component of what we do, but we’re also limited by sponsorship and support. We work with the City of Atlanta and HUD to figure out how many homeowners can be helped with that funding. This year, 35 homeowners have that grant.

For rebuilds, it depends on sponsorship. We help 75 to 100 households each year, but it does vary based on sponsors.

Q: RTA has been around now for 25 years. What are some of the trends that you’ve seen in the city with homes? 

Affordability and allowing seniors to age in place. For a lot of people here in Atlanta, this is all they have. They don’t have any other wealth. This is their American dream and they don’t want to lose it. With rising property taxes and regentrification, they are getting priced out. You can lose your home just by not doing upkeep on your home.

When money goes into neighborhoods, that’s a good thing. But the effect people don’t realize is that increases property value. Increased property value leads to increasing property taxes. If you’re on a fixed income, then you can’t handle that.

Some of the conditions that people are having to live in would break anyone’s heart. It is appalling and our goal is to do everything we can do to help. But the need is just so big that the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia needs to take action. I don’t know that it’s getting the publicity that it needs to.

Q: How is RTA celebrating its 25th anniversary?

We were thinking about the best ways to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Lots of organizations have a party, but that’s not who we are. We would rather be more mission-focused.

We are looking to do 25 houses above and beyond what we’d normally do. Our goal is that by the end of the calendar year, we will do the last of our 25 houses, and we want to do something to commemorate that.

We want to focus on what we do, not just have a gala and have fun, but have fun working with our homeowners.