Small repair, big difference

How Auburn’s Housing Repair Program kept a woman from losing her most prized possession: her independence

City of Auburn
5 min readDec 27, 2023

At nearly nine decades old, Colleen Reece has something at her age most people don’t: complete autonomy.

Because for most, independence is a fleeting privilege — you’re born without it but quickly grow into it. You covet it, at times making it a part of your personality and perhaps a defining characteristic. You can be fierce about it or mutually reliant. But eventually, time wins. People grow old, and their homes that once stood as a testament to productivity become monuments to stillness.

But not for Colleen. She’s home, today, at the same one she’s had for years with no plans to vacate anytime soon. And all she needed was a little help from family and neighborly assistance down the road. And unexpectedly — a visit from the City of Auburn’s Housing Repair Program.

“There’s no way in the world I could be here in my house,” Colleen says. “Not without this.”

To the program’s administrators — coordinator Joel Asbjornsen and boots-on-the-ground technician Harold Showers — swooping in just as things are getting dour is par for the course. Fact is, Colleen isn’t alone — annually, the program helps about 60–70 households across Auburn, and not a penny is exchanged.

The decades-old program provides eligible homeowners grants up to $9,999 for emergency minor home repairs. Leaky roofs, unsafe stairs, floor repair, access for individuals with disabilities, and heating system repairs — all in a day’s work. Should a resident meet the program’s qualifying standards, Joel or Harold will conduct a thorough assessment of the home and tailor the improvements from there.

“We’re able to help people who are really in need,” says Harold. “A lot of people struggle.”

To be eligible, residents must own a single-family home in Auburn city limits, have lived there for at least a year, meet the income requirements of the program which for one person must be below $47,950 a year, and provide proof of ownership.

After that, there’s no saying where things might head. For Colleen, meeting Joel and Harold was complete happenstance — a random chance on a forgetful day that instead sticks in memory because of what happens next.

Two years ago, during a particularly intense heatwave, Puget Sound Energy was out to check on potential problems with Colleen’s power. And when they came out to investigate alongside city workers, they noticed a particularly large step down from her dining room to her garage.

“I asked if she wanted another step and a grab bar,” says Joel. “She said, ‘Oh yes, I never even thought of that.’”

A small step for a man, but a giant leap for a woman in her late 80s who now had safe and easier access again to her garage — a privilege she’d learned to live without for several years.

“All of a sudden I could go in and out without fear of falling,” Colleen says.

Then last year around November, Colleen was out raking leaves, an activity she loved dearly. She came in feeling under the weather and by morning, she had chills and a fever. She tested for COVID, and while negative, knew something wasn’t right. It wasn’t like any sickness she’d had before.

But she did what she always did — she powered through and persevered. Even as the little voice in her head cautioned her otherwise.

“I kept thinking every day that I’d get better,” Colleen says. “But I just didn’t.”

Try as she might, a hospital bed was calling, and by the time she’d checked in, she learned it was an infection. Weeks of IV bags full of antibiotics and nurses and doctors and calls with her insurance companies and calendars in Wesley Rehabilitation Center and lunch tray meals followed, capped off by the inevitability: it’s time to return home.

But illness had other plans. Shortly after arriving, Colleen says she hit her head and back while in the bathroom, so it was back to the emergency room. And after round 2, and home again, she was barely able to walk across her short bedroom to the bathroom.

“Looking back, I don’t think anybody, including me, knew how sick I was,” says Colleen. “It was bad.”

Colleen’s niece remembered, though: those nice men who installed that step. Could they do something similar in her bathroom? A tub conversion into a shower for easy access, and perhaps a rail as well?


“They put a lot of urgency on getting some handrails installed,” says Joel. “So that’s what we did.”

If you visit her home today — and really, she’d be delighted — what you’ll find is nothing out of the ordinary. And that’s exactly the way it’s meant to be. The newly-installed walk-in shower has sturdy handrails, blending with the wall as if they’ve always been there. The toilet is surrounded by a solid cage, meant to pull out when needed and be pushed back when not. Even the bathroom attached to Colleen’s mother’s room — which hasn’t been occupied since 1992 — has a rail just in case.

What sounds minor to you or me is anything but to someone like Colleen. It’s the literal difference between independence and reliance, the former being remarkably important for a woman who’s had just that since first stepping into adulthood.

A writer by trade and a good one at that, Colleen is used to dealing with editors and publishers and readers and the kind of block that only goes away when a good idea is cooking.

She knows what it’s like to teach a group of adults how to put pen to paper in community education classes at Green River College, where she taught for many years starting in 1978, and for the Auburn Senior Center. She knows what it’s like to have boyfriends and suitors, not one of them ever making the cut for a husband. She knows what it means to say confidently — and mean it — that nobody is responsible for me but me.

The clock is ticking, of course, and she’d be the first to tell you her days living at home, alone, are limited. As a woman of faith, she smiles and takes one day at a time. And for now, a little bit longer is just enough to make the biggest difference.

“It’s all thanks to you,” Colleen says. “To the City of Auburn.”