A partnership of government, business and private entities helped a 98-year-old Ocalan get a new home.
Allean Cunningham, 98, right, celebrates moving into her new home with builder, John Plunkett of Triple Crown Homes, left, and her daughter-in-law, Audrey Cunningham, center, on Southeast 31st Street in Ocala, Fla. on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. Cunningham’s new home is built only feet away from her old home, built in 1963, which was deemed unsafe to live in by county officials. Cunningham raised 11 children in the old home and the new home was built after her family worked with a partnership of county government, business and private entities. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.
Allean Cunningham didn’t want to leave her beloved southeast Ocala community, where she had lived for 98 years and raised 11 children—even though her home, built in 1963, was decaying and deemed unsafe to live in.
Cunningham will clearly and adamantly tell you it would be “no good” to move from her ancestral home in the area once known as Montague, or to go into an assisted living facility, even though her former house was called “beyond repair” by a county official.
Now, however, a path taken by family members and county officials, looking for a solution to Cunningham’s housing dilemma, has led to a win-win situation for her and others who qualify in emergency housing situations.
Cunningham recently moved into a new three-bedroom, two-bath, block home immediately next door to her previous house in the 3000 block of Southeast 31st Street, thanks to her family’s efforts and the Marion County Emergency Housing Replacement Program (MCEHRP), established by the Marion County Board of County Commissioners (MCBCC) in 2022. Triple Crown Homes of Ocala provided a discounted construction cost as a community outreach.
“I’ll have to get used to it,” Cunningham said while surrounded by family members at a gathering in her new home on Oct. 21.Partners in progress
Walter Cunningham, 68, of West Palm Beach, one of Allean Cunningham’s eight sons, and his wife, Audrey, pursued many ways to help his mother solve her housing situation and, in 2017, turned to the county. The family also opened a GoFundMe campaign that raised $41,000. He said he now feels that the family’s efforts for his mother will “help everybody.”
The establishment of the emergency housing replacement program by the county, in part, was spurred by the effort to help his mother.
According to a county official, the program was an outgrowth of the efforts to help her and Dave Damron of Fort Mc Coy, a 35-year Marion County Public Schools employee whose house was damaged in a fire in 2021 shortly after his wife passed away, according to a Marion County Facebook post. The Damron house was deemed unsafe to occupy and, in October 2022, arrangements were made to provide replacement housing from All Star Manufactured Housing, the post stated.
The Nov. 15, 2022, MCBCC meeting included an agenda item regarding the replacement house for Allean Cunningham, with a motion by Marion County Community Services Director Cheryl Martin. The motion stated that the office had “developed a pilot housing replacement program over several months.”
“Mrs. Cunningham is income eligible under Marion County’s SHIP program. Her home is eligible under the county’s housing replacement program as it has been determined by a structural engineer that it is beyond repair and unstable,” Martin stated in the motion.SHIP is the acronym for the State Housing Initiative Partnership.
The Community Services team checked with at least one other home building outreach locally for assistance, but the organization was not able to help “at this time,” the motion stated.
“Mrs. Cunningham’s family has received $41,000 from a GoFundMe account and these funds will go toward her home construction project, in addition to any amount over the maximum SHIP loan amount of $150,000,” according to the motion.
The motion included the option of a 30-year deferred “no loan payment” mortgage agreement with Cunningham and a requirement she will be responsible for property taxes and homeowner’s insurance, which was approved by the MCBCC.
The MCEHRP guidelines state the mortgage would “immediately become due” if the original borrower ceased usage of the house.
“The emergency housing replacement program offers a zero-percent mortgage with payment based on income qualifications. The payment amount ranges from no payment up to 30% of the homeowner’s income,” Martin stated in an email. “Options of a monthly payment amount and payback schedule(s) are presented by Community Services to the county commission for final approval during a publicly noticed meeting.”
Marion County Community Services was awarded the Innovation Award from the Florida Association of County Human Service Administrators for developing the Emergency Housing Replacement Program.
Martin said she’s proud that Allean Cunningham now has a safe place to live.
On the path to get the new house constructed, Father Patrick Sheedy of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church provided Audrey Cunningham with contacts for several prospective builders, including Triple Crown Homes of Ocala, which stepped up to do the project in a timely manner and at a reduced cost.The new house has 1,280-square-feet of living space and a 280-square-foot covered front porch, with ample sitting room for overlooking Southeast 31st Street.
John Plunkett, a member of the family operating Triple Crown Homes here since the mid-1980s, said he met with Audrey and Walter Cunningham and “figured it out.”
Walter Cunningham said he had prayed for a solution to get the new house built and Plunkett pulled up in his Jeep.
“That’s the guy that’s going to build my mother’s house,” he said about meeting the builder for the first time.
A program available through the county will assist with demolition of the old house, county documents note.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
As Allean Cunningham sat in her new living room on Saturday, if you grasped her hands, you felt the firm but gentle grip of a wife and mother who cared for 11 children, all born with the aid of a midwife.
Montague was an area with orange groves and cedar trees, which led to the later name of Cedar Hills, and members of the Cunningham and Burton families lived in the area, one family member noted. Allean attended a segregated one-room schoolhouse in southeast Marion County and completed ninth grade. The school is where she met her future husband, Lester Cunningham, she said. He died in 1992, at age 67. Two of their children are deceased.
Allean Cunningham first lived in a house about a half mile east of her current house, according to family members.
Erica Cunningham, 60, one of Allean’s three daughters, lives with her mother as her caregiver. She recalled the area when she was a youngster as having “dirt roads” where a four-lane thoroughfare now runs.
Algene Hopkins, 84, Allean’s sister, who operated the Broadway Cafe in Ocala from 1970 until it closed during the pandemic, has lived temporarily with her sibling.
In addition to Walter and Audrey Cunningham, joining in on the recent gathering at the new home were Allean’s sons Lester Cunningham Jr.,76, and Willie J. Cunningham, 75, nephew Johnnie Nathaniel Anderson Jr. and his wife Dawnita Anderson, and Plunkett.
“The family is so grateful; it’s all about this,” Plunkett said.
In a group prayer, the family thanked God, remembered the family members who persisted to get Allean Cunningham help and then prayed for all involved.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the group members repeated.
For information about Marion County Community Services, go to marionfl.org/communityservices or call (352) 671-8770.