Feds' Green Could Be Even Greener

A ground-floor tenant shivers as wind seeps through his windows. The property manager struggles to pay high fuel bills and scrape together whatever cash is left over at the end of the month to fix a decrepit roof. And the little girl in 4C who wheezes her way through the day and the super with crippling headaches both endure avoidable illnesses.

If only the building was in better shape and the environment cleaner.
Federal weatherization funding can be used to address not only the energy efficiency of buildings but also their financial sustainability, resident health and safety, all while upgrading green skills for workers.
The challenge is finding and combining the resources needed to solve these related problems. Typically, money is aimed at one problem at a time.

This winter LISC and its partner Enterprise completed a two-year “weatherization” project in 2,226 apartments across New York City. The nonprofit owners of these 95 affordable buildings are expected to a see substantial energy savings, and low-income tenants may save as much as $20 a month on their utility bills.

The project was funded by $15 million in federal funding from the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) in partnership with New York State’s Housing and Community Renewal agency and an additional $3 million of funding through New York City’s Housing and Preservation Department. We made sure it was well-spent, not just on fixing drafty windows but also to help that little girl with asthma.

At LISC, a nonprofit that revitalizes neighborhoods across the country, we have long been fans of a comprehensive approach to community development. That means we eye a helpful federal resource to weatherize buildings as an opportunity to do a whole lot more.

So we installed standard retrofit measures – blowing insulation into roofs, replacing rusty old boilers with high-efficiency ones, installing new thermal windows, and more.

But while we were in the building we also layered in lessons for property managers and building maintenance staff on how to operate the new energy efficient equipment, and months after the installations, we sent technical experts back to check if the boilers and staff were performing, and provided follow-up training and trouble-shooting.

We talked with tenants, in their homes, about energy and water conservation, recycling, and healthy living – providing tips as simple as the health benefit of leaving shoes at the apartment entrance, so as not to track in lead and other outdoor toxins.

In a few buildings, LISC NYC is piloting a “Green Cleaning” program to improve air quality by getting that super with the headaches to switch to non-toxic cleaning materials. We suspect if he does the headaches will disappear.

We believe federal and other dollars can work together to address not only the energy efficiency of buildings but also their financial sustainability, resident health and safety, all while upgrading green skills for workers.

The weatherization program does include resident health and safety in its mandate, and a small portion of the funding can pay for non energy-related measures including installing and replacing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. However, the program could present more opportunities to address health and safety and housing preservation issues in a more comprehensive way.

For example, many homes and buildings that are income-eligible for the money (homeowners and at least 66 percent of tenants must have incomes below 60 percent of the state median) also have major repair problems, like a leaky roof, that make it impossible to proceed with weatherization work. The poorer a neighborhood and the older the housing stock, the more likely it is that a sizeable percentage of candidates for WAP won’t be able to benefit from the program. And the “softer” initiatives that LISC has tried to weave in, like tenant education and convincing supers to switch cleaning products, are currently not able to be supported by WAP.

But we are encouraged, yes, even thrilled by signs of collaboration and out-of-the-silo thinking among energy-efficiency and health experts and practitioners across the country.

In the “Green and Healthy Homes Initiative” (GHHI), the federal government, philanthropic funders, the National Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, and local partners are working together in 15 project sites to weave together funding sources in a “whole house” and “whole person” approach. A broad group of funders and practitioners is coming together in New York City this month for a “Weatherization Plus Health” conference to share ideas about ways to improve both the housing and health of communities.

These partnerships – though not always easy to develop and nurture – are exciting, and in some ways mirror the Obama administration’s recognition, in Choice Neighborhoods and other initiatives, that housing quality, educational achievement, public safety and health are all connected, and must all be addressed at the neighborhood level for best and maximum impact.

We hail Washington for giving money to replace a super's screwdriver with a computer to fix the boiler. With collaboration between public and private partners to better integrate energy efficiency, health and safety, and workforce development opportunities, we can do even more to create safe, healthy and sustainable housing and communities.