A new house of hope

Published 12:04 pm Thursday, February 24, 2011

Juanita B. Spencer and her husband John W. Spencer share their story in their Bath-area home Friday. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

BATH – John W. Spencer has spent his life building a foundation for his family and his country.

The 88-year-old veteran helped fight the Nazis in World War II as part of an outfit of tank destroyers.

“We went over there and kind of lost right many boys,” Spencer said.

After the war, Spencer went to work as a plumber.

He and his wife, Juanita B. Spencer, raised a family – three children, two of whom have passed away.

The Spencers have lived in their pleasant-looking, Bath-area home since 1964.

John Spencer said he and his wife have enjoyed their house and remain thankful for it.

On a recent visit, their living quarters was spotless, neatly kept and fragrant with cleaning products.

A fuel-burning wall unit kept the living room toasty, and the Spencers welcomed visitors into their orderly lives with the charm and warmth of practiced hosts.

But things aren’t so tranquil as they appear.

Their home, though lovingly cared for, is leaning precariously.

The floors are rotting, the walls are separating and, once the eye adjusts to the indoor light, the decay can be seen without careful inspection.

With cold air entering through gaps and cracks, the Spencers č on a fixed income č recently received a $700 gas bill.

“You can look right under the house. We had to put some tape over it to keep from things coming in so bad,” Juanita Spencer said.

Pointing to a wall, she added, “If I take that tape from over there, you can see right outside.”

She peeled back the tape and, true to her word, afforded a slim view of the outdoors through the space between walls.

She advised caution while walking on the sagging floor of her bedroom and kitchen.

“You’ve got be real careful,” she said. “It is really rotten.”

Last summer, a snake found its way into the house. The reptile was vanquished with the help of neighbors.

Asked what was happening to his dwelling, John Spencer replied, “It all comes from the foundation.”

Despite the condition of their house, there is a good chance the Spencers won’t be left out in the cold.

The office of Gov. Beverly Perdue recently announced Beaufort County and the Town of Belhaven each won $500,000 in state-federal Community Development Block Grants.

The grants, known as CDBGs, will be used to demolish dilapidated homes owned by low-income occupants.

New homes will be built in place of the old ones.

The funds will put contractors and their crews to work at a time when construction jobs are scarce, related Gary Miller, a rehabilitation specialist with Holland Consulting Planners.

“I’ve had a lot of contractors, I mean a lot, calling me,” Miller said.

Holland, which has offices in Washington and Wilmington, helped the county apply for the grant.

The county’s share of the CDBGs will result in five new houses being built in the Bath, Aurora and Washington areas, said Reed Whitesell, a community development manager for Holland.

“This is basically what’s considered a reconstruction project,” Whitesell said in a recent interview, adding the goal is to build a new home alongside the old one to keep from dislocating residents.

If residents have to be moved temporarily, there are funds for that, he said.

A relatively small house the size of the Spencers’ can be built in eight to 12 weeks, Miller said.

With a load of paperwork to do up front, actual construction is still months away, he indicated.

Coincidentally, Miller is a Bath resident who has known the Spencers all his life.

When he was a child, Miller worked in tobacco with Juanita Spencer.

John Spencer is known as a friend and plumber to many people in the vicinity, Miller shared, his obvious affection for the couple radiating through his smile.

The Spencers have tried before to get into the CDBG program, but others were ahead of them in line. Now, they’re on the county’s list of people intended to benefit from the grant.

As the long, frigid winter begins drawing to a close, the Spencers confirmed they’re looking forward to spring č and to a future they hope will bring a new home.

“I’ll be mighty proud of it,” John Spencer remarked. “We really need it. It’s in bad shape. I hope we can get one. I really do.”

Highlighting her hope, his wife offered credit where she feels it’s due.

“Nothing but the almighty could make the way for this,” she said.