How to fight the affordable housing and climate crises at once

How to fight the affordable housing and climate crises at once

Alicia Cruz was homeless before she and her four daughters moved into a newly vacant apartment in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, about three years ago. As she stood in the kitchen and watched dirty water clog up the sink, the landlord promised he’d have it fixed before they moved in.

But it was just the beginning. The ceiling of her apartment was cracked; the heating was inadequate, so she and her daughters are usually freezing; due to water damage, they regularly deal with roaches. She’s tried to leave but couldn’t find suitable alternatives she could afford.

“If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have ran out the door and stayed homeless a little longer,” Cruz testified to Pennsylvania state lawmakers in December, later adding: “To this day, the landlord won’t fix this place, but he wants to collect my rent money. It’s just really sad.”

The nation’s affordable housing crisis has gotten some semblance of attention — with journalists writing stories on the rising cost of rent, the scarce supply of new housing, the looming threat of eviction — but one aspect of the crisis has gone consistently overlooked. On top of the severe housing shortage that currently exists, nearly 6 million homes nationwide have moderate to serious home health hazards. They require repairs that, if left ignored, will make them uninhabitable, and eventually they’ll disappear from the market altogether.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, a research and advocacy group, estimates a shortage of 7 million affordable housing units for low-income renters, but those figures don’t account for all the existing affordable units that stand at risk of demolition.

Issues like lead paint, leaky roofs, and knob-and-tube wiring don’t just leave tenants and homeowners in substandard, unsafe housing. They also leave families — mostly poor families — shut out from energy efficiency programs the federal government already funds to upgrade homes. Due to inflexible program restrictions, homes with outstanding repairs aren’t eligible for existing weatherization subsidies, despite those families arguably needing them the most. Addressing this problem could help solve both the affordable housing and the climate crisis at once.

Low-income households in particular have a lot to gain from the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which provides funds to repair or replace heating and cooling systems, treat windows, or make any of the other upgrades that can not only reduce home energy use but also substantially reduce utility bills. But as it stands now, it’s people living in homes with no mold, asbestos, or structural issues who can access those WAP funds. Low-income homeowners and renters must first find the resources to fix their units, with some repairs running as high as $50,000.

The sheer number of homes barred from weatherization due to outstanding health and safety issues is immense. In Connecticut, for example, between 2017 and 2019, nearly 25 percent of income-eligible homes were barred from weatherization upgrades. Steve Luxton, who heads a nonprofit focused on helping Philadelphians weatherize their homes, told me 55 to 65 percent of those in his city who apply for WAP assistance are denied because of structural issues. And nationally, according to a recently published E4TheFuture analysis, 10 to 30 percent of income-eligible clients are deferred from weatherization upgrades each year for health and safety problems, with those deferrals on the rise.

Not being able to weatherize homes doesn’t just present cost burdens for low-income households, it also has a direct impact on the climate crisis. The energy required to cool, heat, and provide electricity to residential buildings accounts for 20 percent of annual energy use in the US, with older homes emitting more carbon.

Included in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed in November was a $3.5 billion investment in the federal weatherization program, with the stated goal to increase energy efficiency, increase health and safety, and reduce annual energy costs for low-income households. A 2015 Department of Energy evaluation of WAP found the energy efficiency upgrades it subsidized led to households saving an average of $283 per year on their bills.

The Biden administration estimates the new infusion of funds from the infrastructure bill will allow the government to help 450,000 households weatherize over a decade. But low-income homeowners and tenants will remain shut out from the new money if they aren’t able to make the repairs they need.

“There will always be a tension, saying, ‘Okay, should I spend a thousand dollars to fix that roof when I could weatherize someone else’s house now?” said Charlie Harak, senior attorney for energy and utilities issues at the National Consumer Law Center. “But I’d go so far as to say that often the houses most in need of weatherization get walked away from.”

It’s certainly not easy to come up with money for those repairs. If you’re a low-income homeowner, you would likely struggle to get an affordable home improvement loan from a bank. You may have less than optimal credit, and depending on where your house is located, the house itself may have low equity. If you’re a renter, your landlord probably feels little pressure to make your unit energy efficient, given that it’s tenants, not the property owners, who typically shoulder the electricity and gas bills.

According to US census data, low-income households spent an average of 8.1 percent of their income on energy costs, compared to 2.3 percent for wealthier households. It’s not uncommon for poor families to pull back on other expenses, like medicine, groceries, or child care to cover their energy bills.

Jeff Genzer, who has served as counsel for the National Association of State Energy Officials since 1986, told me the intersection of housing and energy issues is one of the most difficult problems he’s worked on in his career. Steve Cowell, executive director of E4TheFuture and a longtime energy efficiency advocate, said the problem originates from treating health and safety issues as a footnote.

“The whole energy efficiency world that developed over the last 30 years was focused on pieces of the puzzle, and primarily the costs and benefits of energy on an economic dollar basis,” he said. “The health, safety, and conditions of a home has just been seen in the background, a side deal.”

Experts like Cowell have been trying to urge attention on the so-called “non-energy impacts” of weatherization, such as reduced asthma, reduced missed days of work, and fewer home fires. One evaluation published in 2016 assessed that each weatherized Massachusetts housing unit yielded an estimated $1,381 in combined savings to the individual household and society, with some of those savings coming from literally preventing deaths.

The climate crisis has made this harder to ignore

When the energy efficiency movement got its start in the 1970s following the oil crisis, talk of reducing carbon emissions was simply not a salient consideration for policymakers and practitioners, and wouldn’t become one for years.

But as the stakes of the climate crisis have grown clearer, the last 10 years have marked a sea change for the energy efficiency movement. While in prior decades policymakers could ignore home upgrades when they deemed weatherization not “cost-effective,” today they have to wrestle with the fact that the low-income renters living in subsidized apartments are using even more energy than other households, typically because their units are older and built with less efficient tech.

One study published in 2019 by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that making energy upgrades — including to residential buildings — could cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. Upgrades to homes and buildings could save 30 percent on average for most buildings, ACEEE wrote, while installing sensors, automated controls, and other smart software could reduce energy use by another 15 percent.

The carbon emissions produced by old, decrepit housing are not the only environmental threat. A warming planet also threatens to put more homes into disrepair or wipe them out from the existing housing stock altogether, exacerbating our housing shortage. For example, if a fire or natural disaster doesn’t completely destroy a unit, the owner has to decide whether to then repair or demolish it. Affordable rental units are more likely to be demolished than rebuilt, given the tight profit margins they operate on.

Upgrading home energy systems won’t make those homes more capable of withstanding the effects of climate change. As Carlos Martín, the director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, told me, energy efficiency upgrades are climate mitigation steps; they would help reduce future emissions to make the crisis less severe. But addressing home repairs, like fixing broken roofs, floors, and windows — those investments would strengthen existing housing stock to better withstand more frequent storms, flooding, and heat.

The growing affordable housing crisis has brought increased pressure to this situation. Depreciation is one of the top three threats to preserving existing affordable housing. It’s a hard issue to mobilize around though, because, like global warming, it’s a crisis we’re hurtling toward but haven’t yet reached. Weatherizing affordable homes could help avoid that fate; lowering maintenance costs can improve a property’s cash flow, which can then be used to reinvest in other capital needs.

More than a quarter of American households in 2020 reported difficulty paying their energy bills. Harak, from the National Consumer Law Center, noted that failure to pay utility bills is considered a breach of the lease in most subsidized housing, leaving the renter highly vulnerable to eviction.

“It’s a significant issue from an aspect of equity,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “If these people are priced out, where would they actually go?”

A first-of-its-kind legislative fix

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are exploring a legislative solution to this problem, through a first-of-its-kind bill in the nation. Introduced in March by Democratic state Sen. Nikil Saval, the Whole-Home Repairs Act would provide eligible residents with grants up to $50,000 to make needed home repairs, and small landlords could apply for the same amount in forgivable loans. The bill would also aim to ramp up investments in workforce development, to address the growing shortage of qualified workers able to address the repairs.

By finally fixing up the homes, tenants like Alicia Cruz would not only be able to live in safer and healthier environments, they’d also be finally positioned to access weatherization dollars. More than 280,000 occupied homes across Pennsylvania are estimated to have moderate to severe physical issues, ranging from exposed wiring to failed plumbing and leaky windows. Environmental justice activists note that making the housing repairs would also help those being targeted with offers by property developers, and help more seniors age in their own homes, a strong preference for many elderly families who live on fixed incomes.

Genzer, of the National Association of State Energy Officials, told me he thinks Saval’s proposal is an “excellent bill” but that the $50,000 price tag for repairs “tells you a lot” about how difficult this problem can be politically.

Still, it’s not a long shot. Though Saval is a left-wing Philly Democrat, his bill has captured support from some heavyweight Republican legislators in Harrisburg, including Republican Sen. Pat Browne, chair of the state appropriations committee. Another is Sen. Dave Argall, chair of the state government committee, who has worked on blight issues for more than a decade.

“I represent a lot of struggling old mining communities where most of the coal mining stopped in the 1940s and 1950s,” Argall told me. “What I liked about Sen. Saval’s bill is if we help fix up the housing before they completely go to rot, that’s better for the people living in the homes, better for the next-door neighbor, and better for the taxpayer if they don’t have to fund millions and millions in demolition costs.”

Argall said he thinks the bill has “a very good chance” of passage in this year’s budget cycle, though the precise dollar amount is still being negotiated. Saval is pointing to the state’s $6 billion budget surplus and unspent Covid-19 relief dollars as strong sources to seed the new program.

Saval campaigned on affordable housing issues, but his office said data released last spring by the progressive polling firm Data for Progress was particularly instrumental in shaping some of their thinking around the politics. A survey of likely voters across Pennsylvania found 87 percent of respondents supported weatherizing homes to make them more energy efficient, including 83 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of independents.

While the home repairs bill would not itself go toward making energy efficiency upgrades, it would position more homes to be able to access the WAP funds. “We’re trying to make that federal money work more effectively,” Saval told me.

On the federal level, the Department of Energy has been slow to take this problem seriously, though advocates say conversations are starting to happen. The pandemic also elevated the conversation around staying home, indoor air quality, and respiratory illness.

“There’s some new efforts to think through this,” said Cowell, of E4TheFuture. “But they still struggle to decide if weatherization should go beyond just the straight economic savings.” The federal agency still doesn’t require states to report the number of homes deferred from the weatherization program for repairs, and not all states track those “weatherization walkaways” consistently.

Some states can dedicate a portion of their Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds for weatherization, a pot of money that tends to have a bit more flexibility than WAP funds in how it can be spent. Still, spending patterns for LIHEAP vary dramatically across states, and most of the money still goes for its primary purpose — helping poor families defray the cost of their energy bills. In 2015, less than 10 percent of total federal LIHEAP funds were used on weatherization.

In Congress, weatherization has bipartisan support, but there’s been less momentum to address the home repair issues that prevent energy upgrades. Still, Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans, who represents Pennsylvania’s Third Congressional District, including parts of Philadelphia, told me he thinks Saval’s Whole-Home Repairs Act could become a national model. After all, Pennsylvania is showing how blight issues can bring collaboration across the aisle. And a Data for Progress poll from January found investing in energy efficiency for buildings to be one of the most popular climate policies nationally, especially given high energy prices.

“I think this program has great potential — it can be a vital part of the federal, state, and local investment that we need,” Evans said. “I’ve supported and voted for increased federal investments in affordable housing, and this would fit well with that.”