FAIRFIELD — Clifford Risinger, 59, applied recently for help from a new housing assistance program designed to fix up Fairfield’s most dilapidated homes.

He said things in his life are getting better.

A glass of juice in his hand, still wearing a T-shirt and suspenders from a long day of working on cars at Powers Auto Center in Clinton, Risinger spoke openly about the condition of his 39-year-old mobile home.

“The trailer is old and beat up, but it makes do for me,” he said during a tour of his property Tuesday evening.

A year ago, Risinger said, he was staying with friends and helping to take care of them through terminal illnesses. When they both died, he was given two months to find a new place. The trailer, which he got by paying $117 owed in back taxes, was his best option.

He paid another $200 to have it moved to a small lot he owns at the top of a steep, rutted driveway, just out of sight of Norridgewock Road, about a mile from the southern edge of the town.

Risinger’s heavy eyeglasses magnified his eyes, accentuating his already-earnest expression as he described his efforts to apply his considerable electrical, carpentry and mechanical skills to improving the trailer on a shoestring budget. 

The ceilings in the trailer home are naturally low, but the cumulative effect of years of snow on the thin roof caused it to bow lower, by nearly 2 feet. Risinger said it was so bad that he couldn’t stand upright in the kitchen.

The bulge in the ceiling is still there, but much less prominent since Risinger jacked it up and installed a set of kitchen cabinets that bear some of the weight.

Risinger bought a utility pole to bring power to the trailer home, but he couldn’t afford to have it installed. So he drove it home in his pickup truck and installed it himself, using three trees as a tripod, and a come-along to winch it up into the air.

Central Maine Power Co. inspected it and gave it a passing grade, he reported proudly.

These days, he has power in the home. He can walk through his kitchen, not hunched over, but upright. Things are getting better, he said.

Fairfield’s housing problem
Risinger is one of more than 20 people who have turned in early paperwork seeking help from a $250,000 Community Development Block Grant that Fairfield just won to fix up the homes of the town’s low-income residents.

It’s a lot of money, but Carlton Pinney, the project administrator, called it “a drop in the bucket” of what it would take to fill the need in Fairfield, where nearly half the homes are not in good repair.

“You could spend millions,” he said.

He said not all of those who are eligible will apply when applications become available this fall at the Town Office. He guessed that there will be enough money to help only about half of those who qualify.
In his application for the grant, which comes from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and is administered by the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Pinney said many low-income homeowners simply can’t maintain their homes, which are deteriorating to the point that they are no longer habitable.

“Certainly that is a problem common to many Maine towns, but few compare to Fairfield,” he wrote.
Pinney said the competition for $1 million in housing grants available in the state this year was fierce. Augusta got $500,000 for veterans’ housing, while $250,000 each went to Fairfield and Bucksport.

Fairfield’s application was bolstered, Pinney said, by a 2006 survey of the town’s housing. The survey found that of 2,154 total homes, 1,010 were in “poor to fair” condition, including 355 that were “severely deteriorated.”

The situation is even worse for people who, like Risinger, live in mobile homes. Of 286 mobile homes in the town, more than half, 161, were in poor to fair condition. Eighty-two of the trailer homes were, like Risinger’s, built before the government began holding manufacturers to building standards in 1976.

Ordinarily, a home such as Risinger’s would receive a high priority for grant funds, but there’s another issue that makes his situation tricky.

Mobile homes are eligible for grant funds, but not if they were built before 1976. Pinney said that’s because trying to fix them up is a waste of money.

As a result, he said, many low-income people are stuck in them, doing what they can to shore up the 2-inch-thick walls and cardboard trusses, because it is their only line of defense against homelessness.

However, he said, Risinger might be able to leverage government financing for a home replacement under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program. If that worked, the trailer home would be demolished, and an inexpensive ranch house would be built on the overgrown lot in its place.

Risinger, who pours all of his disposable income into trailer repairs, said he would understand if he doesn’t meet the program’s requirements.

“I just want to see if they can help me,” he said. “If they can’t, that’s fine.”

Helping the working poor
Pinney said he has heard the argument that government assistance programs are a poor use of taxpayer money. To support their claim, he said, people against government assistance often point to cases of fraud and abuse.

But in his experience, he said, the large majority of the people who apply for the program aren’t trying to avoid the workforce.

“These are hardworking folks that worked their whole life for not much money,” he said.

Risinger said he hears the sentiment from coworkers, who sometimes give him a hard time, now that he’s applied for a form of public assistance.

“They razz me about it,” he said.

Generally speaking, however, Risinger has worked his entire life.

He puts in 42 hours a week, earning about $10 per hour, at the auto center. He even arrives at work a half-hour early every day so that he can set up the day’s jobs without losing any work time.

“Things go smoother that way,” he said.

Risinger did go through one period of poor health, when he developed a constant pain in his side that no doctors seemed to be able to diagnose. Eventually, a specialist at Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield identified it as a ruptured disk. An hourlong operation put an end to five years of pain, he said.

It’s just another example of how his life is getting better, Risinger said.

Staying optimistic

Whether he winds up getting assistance or not, Risinger said he will continue to make his trailer home more comfortable.

Given time, he thinks he can earn enough at the auto center to continue to solve other problems, which include fixing a sagging floor and filling an empty fuel tank.

His biggest concern is his sewage. For the past year, he’s been going to the bathroom in an orange bucket lined with a garbage bag, which he then twists closed to manage the smell. Mindful of the potential health concerns, he takes it outside and dumps it into the septic tank periodically. He has no septic system, and no clear path to be able to afford one.

He can’t even think about a septic system, the cost of which would run into the thousands, until he’s scraped together the money for a season of heating fuel, which he estimated at $2,000.

Risinger said his next project is installing a set of double-paned windows given to him by a friend. The existing windows are poorly fitted, single-paned sheets of glass that provide little protection against the cold, so they have been covered on the inside with sheets of clear plastic.

Outside on Tuesday, thermometers showed it was 94 degrees out, but the greenhouse effect caused by the plastic sheets made it feel at least 15 degrees warmer inside, even with the door wide open.

Taking advantage of the open door, a wasp landed briefly on the edge of Risinger’s juice glass. He used his thumb to smash it between a piece of paper and the hard surface of his kitchen table.

If he successfully installs the new windows here, he said, he can take down the suffocating plastic and regulate the temperature without letting bugs inside.

The window project will fix just one flaw, in just one of the 82 mobile homes in Fairfield that are so old the government won’t spend a dime to fix them.

In the meantime, they continue to provide shelter, however inadequate.

The tour complete, Risinger expressed only optimism as he stood in the slightly cooler air outside his home, among the quick-growing weeds, their shadows lengthening as the sun dipped.

“It’s getting better here,” he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com