With the fall season already here there are only weeks before New York City has to prepare for another winter – one that many are hoping is going to be more merciful than the last. The harsh weather visibly affects the city on the outside, but many New Yorkers struggle privately to keep warm and survive through another winter in their own homes. And now a program designed to help low-income families enjoy the lower costs and better health associated with well-insulated homes is facing severe budget cuts—a victim of the stimulus package’s end, deficit-reduction ambitions and reports of inefficiency in the program itself.
Created under the Energy Conservation and Reduction Act of 1976, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) was designed to save imported oil and cut heating bills. It funds weatherization for low-income homes all over the country.
In 2009, WAP, which has weatherized 6.4 million homes nationwide since its inception, received $5 billion and a goal of servicing 600,000 homes under the Recovery Act in efforts to promote President Obama’s Green Initiative and make homes environmentally friendly. This brought the maximum amount of expense per unit from $2,500 to $6,500, giving those who qualified more luxuries, increasing the number of people who can receive this service, and giving the companies doing the work a lot more resources.
For the majority of the families who qualify, weatherizing a home comes at no expense. Families living on food stamps, Public Assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) or reporting an income lower than 60 percent of the New York State median all qualify for free weatherization. Such a customer would only have to pay a fee if the home requires a type of work that weatherization does not cover, such as asbestos removal, which must then be conducted before any other work is done.
With the federal 2012 fiscal year budget will likely come a number of program cuts and terminations and WAP is facing the possibility of funding reductions. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which gives 12 percent of its funding to WAP, is on the chopping block, with the president proposing to cut its budget of $5.1 billion to $2.5 billion.
While it’s not always clear why—beyond the general push to reduce federal spending—budget cuts are made to a certain program, several contributing factors can determine a programs ability to survive the cuts. Research by the U.S Government Accountability Office on WAP’s performance suggest that the economic recession, which affected state budgets, complicated several states’ ability to use the Recovery Act weatherization funds. This led some to conclude that the program was provided more funding than was needed. Hiring freezes, quality problems, missing money and inadequate training were also reported problems that may have worked against WAP, according to a September 9 New York Times article. The article, explaining Republican disapproval of the program, said that the program’s overall record “falls short of President Obama’s ambitions.”
According to Department of Energy reports, for the 2009-2010 calendar year, 457,868 homes were completed under WAP; of those 34,482 were in New York State. This was a huge increase from the 125,057 homes weatherized the previous year, but still more than 100,000 short of Obama’s goal.
But now a program that has fallen short could lose its ability to reach even more modest goals. “Radically cutting the federal WAP budget will essentially cripple WAP,” wrote Richard Cherry, founder and president of the Community Environmental Center, which was founded in 1994 with weatherization as a major goal, earlier this year. “It hurts the people of New York City who desperately need weatherization services and it hurts people who may lose their jobs.”
Places like the CEC or the Association for Energy Affordability Inc, which serves the communities of South Bronx and is a weatherization-training center and technical services provider for the New York State WAP, will suffer under the proposed budget cuts.
“Cutting federal funds so radically makes it very difficult for us and similar nonprofit agencies to do the work we set out to do, work that is even more essential in rough economic times,” stated Alexis Greene, CEC Public Relations Coordinator.
According to Greene, the cuts will require layoffs at CEC and make it more complicated to train the staff hired for green careers. While the CEC has surpassed its 2009-2011 required number of units, with more than 10,000 units weatherized, the chances of repeating that number the upcoming year will shrink with the budget.
Regardless of whatever problems affected WAP’s design or implementation, cutting WAP funding will mean less help for people like Odette DeCoteau, who lives in Brooklyn and runs a daycare from the home she brought almost 26 years ago—a home that she was aware needed work done when she first purchased it.
Every winter DeCoteau would have to find ways to keep her home warm for herself and for the children she cared for. Two years ago, she learned she qualified for free weatherization with the CEC. With their help her home was insulated, her attic worked on and her furnace fixed, bringing her heating bill down and saving her a lot of money.
“I don’t have to stuff my windows with plastic to keep my home warm anymore,” said DeCoteau. “I can go to sleep without the heat on high and feel comfortable, instead of scared that I might get sick.”
Obama administration budget documents defend the cut by saying it returns WAP funding to pre-recession levels, and is justified by projected lower home heating costs this winter.
The original version of this story conflated the number of units CEC weatherizes in a typical year (700) with the number it reports it has completed with stimulus funding (10,000).