Nonprofit gets bank's help to increase home hurricane reinforcement in Collier

— Strength against storms.

Since 2009, that's what Retrofit Southwest Florida Inc. has worked toward, one house at a time.

The not-for-profit has reinforced about 20 single-family homes in Collier County to withstand at least a Category 3 hurricane. Another 31 projects are in the pipeline and there's the potential for thousands more to get done with the help of government money, said Jeff Johnson, Retrofit's executive director.

With disaster money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, and the state, the local organization offers qualifying homeowners a 75 percent discount on the cost of hurricane improvements, including reinforcing roof connections, windows and doors.

Some homeowners get new garage doors, depending on what inspectors and engineers on the project recommend.

"What we're trying to do is keep the roof on the house," said Jeff Jones, Retrofit's chairman.

Until now, Retrofit was limited in the number of projects it could do at a time because the labor and materials must be paid for up-front before the government money can be received. But a new partnership with Naples-based Shamrock Bank is providing the means for construction costs to be paid in advance so more projects can be started sooner and more projects can be done at the same time, ultimately keeping everybody working, Johnson said.

"We were kind of start-and-stop," he said. "Now we can continuously harden houses."

Only single-family homes qualify for the Retrofit program and must have been built before 2002. That means no trailers or manufactured homes are eligible.

For a 2,000-square-foot home, homeowners getting accordion-style shutters for windows and doors would pay $5,528 for the hurricane improvements in the mitigation program; the work would normally cost more than $23,000. With the same-size house, homeowners would pay $17,486 if they got hurricane-rated glass, instead of shutters.

The maximum grant amount for a single project is $18,750.

"The homeowners are going to save a lot of money," Johnson said.

Homeowners who participate in the program may see their insurance rates go down. Some homeowner insurance companies offer discounts to customers who harden their homes.

For more information about Retrofit: www.retrofitswfla.org or (239) 877-0996.

Retrofit has been using only a local contractor and local subcontractors to do the hurricane improvements. The program has kept 26 people working in construction for two years, Johnson said.

"People are working because of this," he said.

There is less than a 10 percent mark-up on the materials for jobs and contractors are paid a flat rate to help control costs, Jones said.

"We want to be a low-cost provider," he said.

A $250 deposit is required to get into the program, which is refundable if a homeowner participates. For homeowners, it's first-come, first-served. Approval is not based on financial need and there are no limits based on the house value.

One of the challenges is explaining to homeowners that there's no catch to the grant program and that it's truly designed to help them afford improvements they might not be able to do on their own, Jones said.

"It's a pure match," he said of the grant money. "It's not a rebate."

The organization is looking for charitable donations so it can help more homeowners. A few homeowners who have qualified for the program can't afford their 25 percent share of the cost, so they've put off the improvements for another day.

Bobby Dusek, a Realtor with John R. Wood in Naples, started Retrofit after hearing about a similar program in Pensacola called Rebuild.

"They helped us get started because they already had the background on it," she said.

Rebuild Northwest Florida Inc. was established to fortify homes after Hurricane Ivan struck the state on Sept. 16, 2004. According to the organization's website, more than 5,000 projects have been completed since the program started.

Rebuild has received millions of dollars from FEMA, including a $20 million grant in 2008. In March of last year, it got a $39 million grant from FEMA to help harden another 5,000 more homes in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Rebuild's target is 50 homes a week.

Dusek, the president of Retrofit, doesn't expect her organization to grow as big as Rebuild, but she does expect it to grow. She'd like to see the program spread across Southwest Florida, but she said it will be up to neighboring counties to take the lead.

For more information about Retrofit: www.retrofitswfla.org or (239) 877-0996.

__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden

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