Downsizing Weatherization Programs Cuts Back Economic Opportunity

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Now that the high-leverage Weatherization Assistance Program has been starved of funding for a few years, the fact that United States legislators are discussing closing its doors is not surprising. This shortsighted viewpoint reflects the proposed federal budget’s overall disinterest in poverty alleviation.

What did past participants in WAP say about how it changed their lives, improved their health, yielded environmental jobs, and saved homeowners money? An archive of videos posted in January 2012 by the Weatherization Assistance Program Technical Assistance Center (WAPTAC) tells moving stories about the results of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). A few of these individual narratives are excerpted below.

Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) may be on the chopping block now also, depending on the outcome of the federal budget negotiation.

News publications have often been silent regarding the fate of WAP and LIHEAP and have not discussed the synergies they can create.

The Shutdown of Federally Funded Weatherization

The WAP program has been in existence for over 40 years and has served 7 million households. WAPTAC estimated several years ago that 15 million households were good candidates for weatherization.

In 2013, the federal budget for WAP was cut by 95 percent to 66 percent below pre-ARRA levels. The funding cut was described by a report, “Low-Income Weatherization Stimulus-Funded Program Shines But Storm Clouds Are on the Horizon,” that was published by National Consumer Law Center.

The authors said the program had been an “all-around winner” but needed consistent government support to thrive.

Energy Efficiency for All and American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy published a graph that showed the results of this dramatic cutback. The 2016 report that contained the graph was titled “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Improve Low-Income and Underserved Communities.”

The graph revealed that only two percent of energy funds for relatively low-income households in the United States came from WAP recently. Another two percent came from LIHEAP.

Utilities have pitched in to support some low-income retrofit programs. Ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs are now the biggest resource that is available. But they comprise only 10 percent of the energy funds that low-income households are receiving. 81 percent or more of these funds are simply bill payment assistance.

A Missed Opportunity for Jobs Creation and Public Health

There is such a cornucopia of benefits these programs provide that it is quite surprising policymakers find it expedient to discontinue them.

On a community level, weatherization programs contribute to public health by reducing unsafe drafts, eliminating carbon monoxide, lowering pollutant levels, and improving energy access. They also reduce mental health issues that can occur due to inadequate winter heating.

Improving low-income communities’ financial stability also results in better mental wellbeing, reduced stress, and many other positive outcomes.

Weatherization also facilitates economic development by funneling more income into community residents’ bank accounts. There is a multiplier effect that occurs when households can spend more money locally. The creation of weatherization-related jobs also has a ripple effect that benefits tradespeople, businesses and families. Meanwhile, landlords benefit from improved property values and more satisfied tenants. 

According to the national report by EEFA and ACEEE, low-income households pay a disproportionate share of their income for utilities. Weatherization would cut a massive fraction of these costs – especially in multifamily buildings and in Latino and African-American communities.

There are some benefits that accrue to utilities as well. Utilities also have less infrastructure to maintain and fewer shutoffs to handle when weatherization improves the building stock. 

Critics of weatherization funding have not fully accounted for most of the advantages listed above when they evaluate the performance of programs. The interviews below show the many non-energy benefits that workers and customers report.

Susan Wulf: We live in a home that is pushing 100 years old. My husband has done a lot of the remodeling himself with a couple friends. We’ve had a few challenges in the years that we’ve lived here. And in the last few years, it’s been mainly health deterioration that has caused us not to be able to do our own work, which my husband and I have always done.

The work that Project Home has done for us was remarkable because of tightening areas that we wouldn’t have even expected that needed work. The floors feel much warmer. We can feel less of a draft.

A working crew is more like family than strangers. And anything that I could do to help them, I would do. Everything that they have done for me has added to my life, in every aspect... I can truly, from my heart, say I’ve never met finer people that have been so giving of themselves.

Carolyn Nacke: I work at the local high school and I worked at the office. My hours were cut two years ago. It adds up. You don’t have that paycheck and [are] getting older.

Any time in my house, no matter how much I tried, you could always feel a draft. The weatherization people came in. They put insulation in places that never did have it before. I have a gas fireplace and a gas heater. Now I feel safe and secure because I do have a reliable carbon monoxide detector that was put in. My electric bill has gone down and my gas bill’s gone down.

Since they’ve made the changes in the insulation in the walls and everything, I feel I sleep better at night.

When they told me I was getting all this, I cried! I really did cry, because it was a blessing. I mean, I could not believe it. It just made a world of difference to me.

Linda Francis: There was an opening in weatherization with Project Home so I applied. I was one of three people hired. Since then, I’ve continued on and I’ve been in weatherization for about six years.

People are… losing their homes because they cannot afford even the basics. They cannot afford to heat their homes. They cannot afford to eat. So any way we can help them conserve energy means more money in their pockets to be used for other resources.

I’ve had some people say now they can afford their medications. They have medications that cost two, three or four hundred dollars.

In addition to lowered utility bills, we come in and we do health and safety checks. They might have a water heater that’s not working correctly and is back-drafting carbon monoxide. And so we help them facilitate getting that fixed.

We get a lot of reactions from clients. Some are… ecstatic. They’re just happy with everything we do. We come in and do all this work and by the time we leave, they’re in disbelief. They can’t believe what we’ve done for them.

Steve Payne: Obviously, weatherization creates jobs. But many may not realize just how deep and how broad that is. There’s certainly the hands-on labor and the construction. The program significantly impacts the indirect job market as well; the job market created by the material suppliers, the product manufacturers, and even the trainers whom weatherization depends upon.

They’re the supply chain for our weatherization technology... The weatherization program has been a technological breeding ground for over 25 years. This enabled these suppliers to develop the cutting-edge technologies that reduce energy costs for those homes that can least afford any inefficiency – as well as ensure that homes are healthy and safe.

In so doing, these businesses are helping create green technology jobs that our country needs to compete in the global energy economy. Today we’re seeing tools and techniques that were introduced into the program as standard practice nearly 20 years ago, if not more. And now we’re seeing them gradually being integrated into the broader construction and retrofit industry.

The weatherization program creates jobs in technology, manufacturing, supply, training and construction. One day we’ll look back and see that the first round of jobs creation was just the tip of the iceberg.

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