Hammer & Heart provides home repairs for low-income residents

Mark Mullert has been doing the handyman thing for the past three years. He has seen homes with debilitating damage, a problem all too common for low-income and elderly members of the Swannanoa Valley community.

“A man whose water heater had a leak and then had so much wood rot that it fell through the floor,” Mullert said. “He hadn’t had hot water in five years.”

The plumbing in this house, coupled with a host of other problems, only made the other problems worse. Mullert said the man didn’t know how much it would cost to fix everything and was afraid to ask for help.

“He flushed the toilet with a five-gallon bucket. He had about 20 roof leaks with pots and pans and various things around,” Mullert said. “Most of the floor in the house was rotten and he walked from stud to stud.”

This was the first year Mullert said he was taking on a project of this magnitude. He took his team with him to do the job well. After fixing everything they could, Mullert hired a plumber to fix the remaining issues.

The man asked Mullert how much he owed, but the handyman refused payment, saying it had been an honor to help. The man insisted on writing a check, but Mullert had a better idea.

“I said, ‘Well, you’re writing it to someone else you think needs help,'” Mullert said.

Hammer & Heart exists to provide home repair and maintenance services to residents in similar situations. This includes lower-income homeowners and elderly or disabled members of the community whose homes are often their main investments.

According to Ben Fortson, the organization’s chairman of the board, people have been doing this type of work in the community for years, and Hammer & Heart is working to coordinate and combine these efforts. People like Mullert did extra volunteer work on his own for people he needed help.

Mullert realized the need for home maintenance for those who can’t afford it when he ran a campaign through Facebook to nominate a neighbor in need.

“I thought, ‘Oh, we’re getting 10 people, five people, I don’t know how many,'” Mullert said. “In the end we got more than 60 people who needed help.”

He retired from work from Thanksgiving to Christmas and took his crew of five for three weeks to attend to the most pressing needs. He hated having to choose which projects to tackle, but it opened his eyes to the dire need in the area.

Mullert saw many sad stories in which residents were unable to access parts of their homes due to degradation. He said nearly half of the projects they received that winter were related to the roof.

“A few of these houses are down the road from really really nice houses, but for whatever reason these people can’t maintain them,” Mullert said.

Along with his wife, Kenda, Mullert invited entrepreneurs, contractors and anyone interested to meet in 2019 to find out how to create an organization that could do the work so many people need while maintaining affordability. Fortson.

“He got some momentum, he got some interest, but didn’t really know where to go,” said Fortson.

In May 2020, Mullert hosted a meeting and determined what was needed to create a nonprofit, a means of raising funds and funneling the money to contractors to carry out the repair work. Fortson said Mullert chose five people with specific skills to serve as directors and asked Fortson to act as leaders.

“We started meeting once a month to discuss how we’re going to make this happen,” Fortson said.

The board chair plans to have the organization coordinate with churches, law enforcement, social services and contractors, as well as other nonprofit organizations, to see how best to serve the community. The hope is that if the organization can protect housing from deterioration, it can create an all-around better living environment, keep people in their homes, and preserve the home’s value through long-term repairs.

“We need people in our community who can see the home repair issues and steer our way,” Fortson said.

Originally started in Black Mountain, Fortson said the organization expanded its reach to the entire Swannanoa Valley after researching which areas needed help the most. He said repairs are not limited to a specific area and could include electrical issues, plumbing, roofing, accessibility issues or anything else that if the problem persists, it will only get worse.

“Or it could be something that poses a danger to their health,” Fortson said. “Maybe their heating isn’t working. Maybe they’re elderly and the entrance to their house is rotten, so it’s a struggle for them to get in and out of their house.”

Fortson often said that these types of homeowners need help but don’t know where to ask. Through a careful vetting process, Hammer & Heart determines where the need is for applicants and how they can best be helped.

“They’re really trying to survive,” Fortson said.

While the organization is still in its infancy, Fortson said he hopes to complete a few projects before applying to officially become a nonprofit. The first project the organization has undertaken includes building an access ramp, roof repairs, and addressing heating and cooling issues for an elderly resident in Black Mountain.

“We’re a volunteer organization,” Fortson said. “We need bodies and minds and skills to help us meet these needs in our community.”

Mullert said a primary goal of Hammer & Heart is to be agile enough to respond quickly to problems as they arise. He doesn’t want projects to take months. He wants people who need help to get help as soon as possible.

“There is thousands of dollars more damage if someone has to wait six months,” Mullert said. “We do our best.”

To learn more about Hammer & Heart, to get involved, donate, or request help, visit https://www.hammerandheartwnc.org/.

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