Aigburth’s Solar Upgrade

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GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic , a non-profit organization that makes solar power and job training accessible to under-served communities, and volunteers from Constellation energy installed a 90kw cost-saving solar energy system at Aigburth Vale last week.

GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic is able to provide the solar energy system with the support of Constellation.  Savings from the system will help fund ongoing renovations to preserve Aigburth Vale as affordable senior housing.

Built in 1868 by architects Niensee and Neilson as a country home for actor John E. Owens, the historic Aigburth Vale mansion was turned into affordable senior housing in 1999 by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and our partners.

The 90 kW solar energy system, which will offset common area energy usage, will result in approximately $15,000 of savings on electrical bills annually. The savings will help St. Ambrose provide the 70 residents with multiple improvements to each unit, including new kitchens, handicap accessible bathrooms and new HVAC units, as well as upgrades to the common areas, including a new roof, common area furniture, floors, gym equipment, computers, a back up generator and elevator upgrades.

The solar energy system will prevent 2,347 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere, and is the equivalent of planting over 50,000 trees.34165992135_26aba9b219_z.jpg

On April 20th, 20 volunteers from Constellation came to help with the installation of the solar panel system. The day kicked off with an announcement of the project and a celebration with stakeholders and sponsors.

 

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Congressman John Sarbanes praised St. Ambrose for the development and preservation of Aigburth Vale over the last two decades and discussed how the partnership that enabled the solar panel installation at Aigburth Vale should be used as a model in communities across the country to help further the impact of solar energy.

Councilman David Marks commented on the importance of appreciating local history and the environment as well as effective partnerships as three components of a thriving community.

Other speakers included Gerard Joab, executive director of St. Ambrose, Bill Rubin, director of rental services, Nicole Steele, executive director of GRID Alternatives mid-Atlantic and Gary Fromer, senior VP of distributed energy at Constellation Energy.

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Left to right: GRID staff member, Nicole Steele, Congressman Sarbanes, Gerard Joab, Gary Frommer, Councilman Marks, Jane Wilson

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Pictures by GRID Alternatives and St. Ambrose

An Update from the Legal Department Regarding Water Bills and the Tax Sale

By Christina Ochoa

Every year when spring arrives, the lawyers at St. Ambrose begin to receive many worried phone calls related to May’s tax sale in Baltimore City. A tax lien certificate can be sold for an unpaid water bill, unpaid property taxes, or an environmental control board citation. The attorneys here have represented clients in informal hearings about disputed water bills in order to help homeowners avoid the tax sale and straighten out their bill.

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Evelyn Anderson (left), a client who was facing a $1,300 water bill and Staff Attorney Christina Ochoa (right)

 

This year, things got a bit tricky, because in October of 2016 when the city switched from quarterly billing to monthly billing, they also eliminated the hearing process. As advocates it has been a very difficult transition because we have homeowners with bills into the thousands of dollars who would like to meaningfully dispute their bill with an impartial third party, but no longer have any mechanism to do so.

In response to these changes, St. Ambrose has become very involved with trying to initiate change and also work with the city in different individual cases. City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young and Councilman Robert Stokes called for an investigative hearing to be held where the Department of Public Works was to address several different issues, including missing bills, the informal conference, and erroneous bills. Advocates from other organizations as well as Baltimore City homeowners and business owners offered testimony as to the experience they have had with very high water bills and the general disorganization of the Department of Public Works. We called on DPW to reinstate a hearing process to protect homeowners from potentially losing their homes over an erroneous water bill. Charlotte Clarke, an attorney at St. Ambrose, went into detail about a specific property where the bill was over $44,000 and expressed the clear necessity of a hearing process to address this type of problem.

As of yet, no changes have been implemented. The tax sale occurs every year in May and the deadline to pay in order to avoid tax sale is April 28, 2017, so we are hoping for some meaningful resolution prior to that time. Through our tax sale workgroup, we have invited the Director of Public Works, Rudy Chow, and all the members of the city council to meet with us to discuss the city’s next steps. Hopefully our local government and our Department of Public Works will accept our group’s invite and come up with a solution that protects our residents. In the meantime, our team will remain committed to serving Baltimore residents in many different affordable housing related cases, including water bill disputes.

If you, or someone you know, is in need of free legal advice or assistance regarding a water bill or tax sale notice, please don’t hesitate to call us: 410-366-8550 x249 or email legal@stambros.org.

Or visit one of these upcoming clinics: 17917657_1408357049184886_3061156531151684134_o

Emergencies don’t have to be financial disasters; start saving now!

You’re laid off at work. Your car needs a new transmission. Your furnace blows. These are all costly emergencies that can’t usually be anticipated and cannot be avoided once they occur. Without a fund set aside just for such emergencies, they can trigger even greater disasters.

Last year, NeighborWorks America released the findings of its third annual consumer finance survey. Chief among them is the alarming fact that nearly a third of adult Americans (29 percent) have no emergency savings. Ninety-one percent of those with incomes of $100,000 reported holding emergency savings, compared to just 30 percent of who earn less than $20,000, 63 percent of those with incomes below $40,000 and 78 percent of those with incomes between $40,000 -$50,000.

There also were significant differences by race and education. The highest percentages of households without any emergency savings at all were reported by African-Americans, adults with lower incomes, and among those with a high school education or less.

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A good rule of thumb is to have enough funds set aside to cover three to six months (some say four to seven) of living expenses. This will give you enough time, for instance, to find a new job or supplement your unemployment benefits until you do. However, anything in the bank is better than nothing — and $500 will get you out of many scrapes that would otherwise put you in the hole. In other words, start small if you have to, but start.

Here are a few tips:

  • Set up a savings account just for this purpose. Separate it from the accounts you tap into on a regular basis so you’re not tempted to dip into your reserves. Do not get access to it via debit card. And if you are issued a checkbook, hide it.
  • Arrange the automatic deposit of a portion of your paycheck into that savings account. Most employers allow direct deposits into multiple accounts. This is the most painless way to create a regular savings habit; you won’t even notice it! But make sure you’ve created a realistic budget. Otherwise, you’ll be pulling money out of savings regularly to pay bills, defeating the purpose.
  • Keep the change.When you get $1 and $5 bills after breaking a $20, drop some in a jar at home. When the jar fills up, move it into your savings account. And if you have money left after paying your bills at the end of a pay period, move some into your emergency fund.
  • Save your tax refund. The average refund is in the thousands, which can give a good boost to your emergency savings. When you file your taxes, consider having your refund directly deposited into your emergency account. Alternatively, adjust your W-4 tax form so that you have less money withheld, and direct the extra into your emergency fund.
  • Cut back on costs.If you’re still falling short on saving, track your spending for a month to find discretionary expenses you don’t really need. Meals out, stops at coffee shops, drinks with friends all add up fast, but you may not realize how much you’re spending in total until you’ve put it on paper.

Remember: Expenses you should be able to anticipate, such as holiday gifts and annual auto insurance payments, are not emergencies! One of the most common problems people have with emergency funds is forgetting to plan for one-time expenses each year.

St. Ambrose is a member of the NeighborWorks America network of nonprofit housing and community-development organizations and we have staff that are trained and certified to offer financial education and coaching to help you follow these guidelines. Our financial coaches can help you realize your goals, encourage you along the way, and hold you accountable on your journey. Emergencies are upsetting enough. Don’t allow them to turn into financial catastrophes as well. If you’re interested in meeting with a financial coach, call us at 410-366-8550 ext. 235 or check our webpage: https://www.stambros.org/pages/financial-coaching.html

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Leslie and Rosalyn, proud graduates of our “Invest in Your Future” workshop series

Baltimore Sun article leads to an unexpected outcome for a St. Ambrose client

A story published in the Baltimore Sun last week highlights the struggles and stress that plagues Baltimore City Homeowners who try to contest atypical water bills through the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. St. Ambrose attorneys are working with the DPW and with Baltimore residents to provide guidance in navigating the process of challenging water bills. Since October, however, the appeals process that had been in place to contest water bills has been dismantled and residents’only option is to fill out a complaint form.

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left to right: staff attorney Charlotte Clarke, St. Ambrose client Evelyn Anderson, staff attorney Christina Ochoa.  Baltimore Sun Video by Amy Davis.

The decision to eliminate the appeals process was not announced and poses a major threat to the housing security of many Baltimore City Homeowners who no longer have an opportunity to openly discuss erroneous bills. Our legal department works with clients every day who receive inexplicable water bills that range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars (Don’t believe us?). The elimination of the appeals process creates an especially grave situation as the tax sale deadline approaches and homeowners with unpaid water bills, even grossly inaccurate ones, run the risk of their home going into tax sale foreclosure.

Though city processes have a long way to go to become more equitable for residents, in the short term, much needed relief came for our client Ms. Anderson who was featured in the Baltimore Sun article and was facing a $1,300 water bill. An anonymous donor contacted St. Ambrose to arrange to pay the bill. In fact, eight people reached out to the agency to inquire about contributing to the bill and providing support for other clients who face the risk of losing their home due to water bills.

Staff attorney Christina Ochoa comments on the outpouring of support from the community, “in an industry where we’re so often the bearers of bad news, seeing people’s generosity was really uplifting.”

UPDATE: The Baltimore Sun published a follow up story here: Good Samaritans Step Up

Community Development Network Day in Annapolis

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center is a member of Community Development Network of Maryland (CDN). CDN is a group that represents the interests of housing and community development organizations across the state. Although Maryland communities are diverse in so many ways, CDN unites community organizations on our shared goal of making our communities great places where people can thrive and have access to opportunities. The network gathered in Annapolis to meet with legislators and discuss some of the pending legislation this session that could improve and strengthen our communities.

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left to right: Director of Housing Counseling, Cara Stretch; Staff Attorney Christina Ochoa; Special Assistant to the Executive Director/Compliance Officer, Phillip Westry

We heard from law makers and had the opportunity to connect and share our on-the-ground experiences as community development professionals. By providing testimony and education about how Maryland laws impact our clients, we can be confident that our legislators have an educated perspective to make decisions that will strengthen communities and people. Below are a few of the highlights from our state legislators and leaders:

sam_0261House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh discussed the necessity of housing and addressing poverty if we are to expect strong education outcomes. Delegate McIntosh also emphasized the importance of passing the HOME act during this session to end discrimination in housing based on source of income only.

SAM_0254.JPGHouse Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar Barve commented that we can’t expect health outcomes or education outcomes to be achieved until we have a safe secure place to live. Many of the bills that impact the community development field are introduced in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

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Land Use and Ethics Sub Committee Chair Steve Lafferty reiterated the importance of the work of housing counselors in Maryland for not only foreclosure prevention, but also to prepare Maryland families for the future through homeownership counseling and financial literacy.

SAM_0270.JPGMaryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Kenneth Holt emphasized the bright future ahead for communities across the state and discussed initiatives to reach the state’s goal of eliminating homelessness.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Maryland government and the general assembly, check out Maryland Manual Online .

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of Community Development Network check out their website here. 

 

Homesharing gets Published!

Our Homesharing program is featured nationally in NeighborWorks America’s new book, “NeighborWorks Works: Practical Solutions from America’s Community Development Network.”NeighborWorks Works is a collaboration book that showcases the NeighborWorks network’s innovative solutions in affordable housing and community development.

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Homesharing, which began matching homeowners with tenants  in Baltimore City in 1988, is recognized in the book as a unique and impactful solution to the challenge of creating affordable housing. Through a new program expansion, “Parent-Child Homesharing,” supported by the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation, Homesharing is now growing into a housing solution for families too!

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St. Ambrose is featured alongside 2 other Baltimore organizations and countless more from across the U.S. Each page tells the unique story of an innovative solution that is helping to strengthen and empower our communities.  The book illustrates the incredible and far reaching impact that community development has on the communities where we live and grow.

With a donation of $25 or more to the Homesharing program, we will send you a copy of the NeighborWorks Book, complimentary! On the donation page there is a question where you can indicate that you would like a copy of the NeighborWorks Book.

Go ahead- Donate now.

Amazon’s Alexa comes to Aigburth-Vale

St. Ambrose is participating in a project through the AARP foundation to address isolation among older adults in our senior housing community, Aigburth-Vale mansion, in Towson, MD.  Residents who volunteer to participate in the program are given the Amazon Echo, a voice controlled speaker, to use at home, and the AARP Foundation will track volunteers’ usage patterns.

51xen2uyoyl-_sl1000_According to Amzon’s website, “Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask.”

After a successful initial prototype trial at Aigburth and 3 other senior communities this summer, the project will be expanded in early 2017 to reach seniors all over the country including a larger group of residents at Aigburth-Vale. The goal is to find and advance an innovative solution to reduce the risk of social isolation among older adults.

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Al from AARP speaks to Aigburth residents about the risks of isolation and the Echo project.

Al Browne, who is leading the program at the AARP foundation, made a presentation last week for interested residents to learn more about the project and how to participate. Al explained that participants’ engagement patterns will be tracked in an attempt to show three things: people over the age of 50 will want the echo and will use it, ‘skills’ (apps for the Echo) can be created to improve the health of older adults, and investors will be interested in helping to make the echo more affordable for seniors.

Al told the group that for the 12 million older adults living alone in the United States they “gradually disconnect from friends and family.” According to AARP’s website, social isolation is “the result of multiple causes, including poor physical and mental health, poorly designed communities, and major life events such as loss and retirement.” Research also shows that “the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” The AARP foundation is looking for an easy to use technology that could have a positive impact on quality of life of seniors living alone.

The echo was an obvious choice for a number of reasons. The voice assistive technology is simple to use and ideal for an older adult whose sight or motor skills may be deteriorating. The echo provides news and information, and can play music and audio books, all of which help to keep users more connected to the world. But Al comments, sometimes it’s less about the information received, and more just that the technology “feels more human.” You can also ask Alexa to tell you a joke or even give you advice. Users have reported feeling empowered by being able to share the technology with their families and friends.

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Edwena, an Aigburth resident and Echo user.

Edwena, an Aigburth resident volunteered at the meeting, “I took it on vacation and everyone loved it! It brought everyone together, from the little one’s on up and afterwards they said, ‘make sure to bring it next time’”

Al has heard this from participants from other communities too. A man from Miami took Alexa on a cruise and commented that he “felt like a rockstar.”

Al is working with experts in gerontology from across the country  in an effort to enhance the product to better address the needs of older adults. In addition to the device’s basic functions, Alexa has the ability to learn “skills” which are like apps that can be installed for the echo. Al’s goal is to identify and develop skills that would promote positive health outcomes for seniors.

Residents at Aigburth had the opportunity to make suggestions for how to make the product most valuable for them. The most common suggestion: “Could Alexa call a family member or an emergency number in the event of a fall?” Though not one of Alexa’s current ‘skills,’ Al has been advocating for this capability. Everyone at Aigburth agreed, emergency assistance would be a major selling point for older adults and their families.

“Can I dictate a story about my childhood to Alexa?” one resident wondered. Al was enthusiastic about the idea that Alexa could help seniors to journal or record oral histories.

And, “What if Alexa could provide reminders about when to take what medications and when to have meals,” a resident’s caretaker questioned.

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Joyce, a resident’s caretaker at Aigburth offer suggestions for how to move the Echo forward.

Input from Aigburth’s users and from senior users throughout the country will help to guide leaders in pushing for improvements to the voice assistive technology that can be catered specifically for the needs of seniors.

Leslie, an Aigburth resident and early participant in the Echo project commented said she uses her echo in this way: “In the morning when I get up, I probably ask for the weather so I know what to wear. I make my shopping list, and if I take a nap, I ask it to wake me up.” Though Leslie commented that she just used Alexa for menial things, it’s easy to see how Alexa is able to offer a little extra help for daily activities.

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Leslie (left) and Nancy (right) are both Echo users

Many residents were excited about the prospect of the program continuing, and the current echo users at Aigburth have been encouraging their friends and neighbors to get on board with the expanded project.  Nancy is probably Alexa’s biggest advocate at Aigburth-Vale. Though Nancy is very active and engaged in her community, she acknowledges that there is a great need among her peers for the kind of social diversion that Alexa offers.

Requirements to participate in the program include having a smart phone and access to WiFi. Both of these things proved to be an obstacle for participants to sign up this summer, but St. Ambrose staff made it a priority to enhance the building’s WiFi and now, each room at the mansion has a strong wireless internet connection. There is a growing list of Aigburth residents who are looking forward to participating in the program. Residents who participate will receive a free Amazon Echo from the AARP foundation that they will get to keep even after the project ends. Volunteers will complete a survey before the program starts, and then they are just asked one simple request: use it!