A nonprofit program funded in part by local government entities helps low-income Floridians make modifications to their homes to improve health and safety.
Part of the program focuses on making homes safer for children with severe allergies and asthma, like 5-year-old Tampa resident Mario Garcia.
His mom, Natalie Garcia, helps him do regular treatments with an inhaler and nebulizer. But with many health conditions, it's not enough to treat the symptoms, you have to address the root cause.
"I would take him to the hospital, like, every two months,” Garcia said about Mario getting sick. “I'm doing what I can clean in trying to keep up with diet and doing everything you do with somebody that has an asthma condition. But it wasn't working. So I'm like, maybe it's my house? I don't know."
While Garcia looked for an answer, Mario's daycare suggested a program that could help. Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay is the local arm of national organization Rebuilding Together that helps low income-homeowners make repairs and safety modifications to their homes for free.
This year, they've helped more than 120 homeowners in the Bay area.
Click here for the list of seven Florida chapters, and information on how to apply for their programs.
Dexter Lewis, with the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, says the board has awarded the local chapter of Rebuilding Together about $286,560 annually to help fund the program.
Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay was awarded the contract on Nov. 1, 2018 and it runs through Sept. 30, 2022.
While home repair costs vary, RTTN spends about $6,000, on average, per house. The budget this year equaled about $789,000 for construction costs, and about $100,000 or so saved thanks to volunteer work.
Lewis says the repairs impact a child’s home life significantly, but it doesn’t stop there.
"Obviously, if a child can't breathe at night, they're not able to focus in school in the morning,” Lewis said. “They may have to miss class because they're not feeling well."
The most recent data from the Florida Department of Health’s Florida Asthma Program shows 1 out of 5 Florida public middle and high school students have been diagnosed with asthma - and an estimated 461,200 instructional hours were lost due to asthma in the 2012 to 2013 school year.
Jose Garcia, the executive director of Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, and a team of contractors recently assessed Natalie’s Tampa home, which she shares with her mother and son.
He points to a broken window, which makes it difficult to regulate the temperature inside, and could let in allergens.
“Ok, you need the glass to be replaced. Did they see this?” Jose Garcia asks Natalie Garcia.
“Yeah, I showed them this," she says.
Jose Garcia makes a note to call his team.
They look for broken or unsealed windows, mold, clogged air ducts, and more. They educate homeowners on how to properly clean dust and mildew, and remind them to take their shoes off before they come in so they don't track in pollen spores, grass, and other allergens.
In Mario's bedroom, Jose Garcia stands in front of the 5-year-old’s twin bed with a Disney Cars bedspread.
"So as long as this room is safe,” he says, “we can work from here outside."
Mario's bedroom was fine. The air ducts? Not so much. Those had to be replaced.
“There is so much potential sources of mold," Jose Garcia said. “When you clean it, instead of cleaning it, you're freeing it all around the environment so the best thing is to just take it down and put in a new one."
In one of the bathrooms, an improperly installed shower liner led to a moldy wall behind the toilet. The dry wall there has to come out, too.
And because their work isn't just limited to allergen concerns, they also installed new fire alarms, and discussed grab bars in the bathroom for Natalie Garcia's mother.
Since the work started a few months back on the home, Natalie Garcia has seen an improvement in Mario's health. He's using his inhaler way less.
"After the ducts were replaced, he stopped using it,” Natalie Garcia said. “Now that we're in the season of fall, he's using it a little bit more."
Most low income families - including this one - can't afford to just pack up and move to a new home. And aside from expensive home repairs, it’s typically cheaper for a family to pay a monthly mortgage than it is to rent a much smaller space.
"If existing housing is deteriorating and falling apart, what is going to happen is it's no longer gonna be available for the children and other generations," Jose Garcia said.
By doing these repairs, it’s one way of addressing the affordable housing crisis locally, he said.
“Those houses are going to disappear. New ones are going to be built in, they will be market value and it will be less affordable than it is today.”
There’s not much they can do about rentals, but he says these repairs will help ensure that Natalie Garcia and her son can one day inherit the family home.