Cities Make Sustainability A Priority June 11, 2014

cmsyWhen Richard Morgan first conceived of a program to teach carpentry skills to at-risk youth, he didn’t intend for it to be a cutting edge environmental project. Through the American Institute for Learning, an adult education center in Austin, Texas, where Morgan works, he hoped to set up a cabinet shop that would serve as an apprenticeship program.

But when the city’s Environmental and Conservation Services Department heard of Morgan’s plans, it suggested an environmental spin. Why not build energy-efficient, sustainable housing for low-income people? Morgan was intrigued, and the result is Casa Verde, a model “green” construction program that has multiple benefits for low-in-come people.

A three-bedroom “sustainable” house was built last year as a pilot project and sold to a low-in-come family for $40,000. With its successful completion, Casa Verde received funding both as a HUD YouthBuild program and an AmeriCorps program, President Clinton’s national service initiative. Support also comes from the Community Housing Development Organization.

Sustainable construction uses methods and materials that don’t deplete natural resources, and that are safe, healthy and light-enhancing, Morgan explains. “It has positive impacts on the occupants, the builders and the area,” he says. “The houses are durable, resource-efficient and adaptable.”

This year three more houses are under construction. They are made from Faswall, a mineralized wood fiber that is filled with concrete. Among the energy efficiencies are a heating system fueled by energy from the hot water heater, large overhangs and a porch for shade, a metal roof with a radiant barrier to decrease attic heating and ceiling fans.

Not only will Casa Verde provide affordable, energy- efficient housing for low-income people, but it also offers a foot in the construction trades to at-risk young adults, between the ages of 17 and 25. “Construction is a good medium to teach responsibility and citizenship,” says Morgan.

This year, 64 apprentices are being introduced to the building trades; more than half of them had a troubled past with the justice system. They work in eight-person crews, alternating their workweeks with classroom study. They also perform community service by assisting with weatherizing other low-income housing and with making houses accessible for people with disabilities. Casa Verde apprentices are paid minimum wage, and receive free health insurance and child care, as well as a $4,725 educational grant through AmeriCorps.

“It’s really exciting,” says Morgan. “When they leave our program, they will have been exposed to all of the trades that are involved in residential construction.” Morgan estimates that as many as 40 percent of the program’s graduates will go on to work in construction.

Philadelphia: Neighborhood Centers Wage Valiant Fight

Philadelphia is one of the nation’s utility nightmares. High gas and electric rates, costly modernization of a deteriorating infrastructure, older homes and an aging, poor inner-city population combine to fuel an ongoing energy crisis.

In the mid-eighties, the situation came to a head when gas utility shut-offs mushroomed from 3,000 to 30,000 a year. At the same time, the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was poorly managed, not even spending its full $24 million allotment from the federal government. The Weatherization Assistance Program was in shambles.

“There were all kinds of horror stories,” recalls Liz Robinson, executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia. “Insulation was ending up on people’s beds from the roof. Storm windows were installed that were six inches too short. There were resources, but they were poorly managed, poorly delivered and the result was a problem raging out of control.”

The financially-strapped city, leery of creating a new government agency, established the Energy Coordinating Agency as an independent nonprofit to help low-income people avoid shut-offs. It has grown into a comprehensive program that is fighting the crisis on many fronts.

“We’ve tried to create a rational system from the customer’s point of view,” says Robinson. Seven neighborhood centers serve as “one-stop shopping” for people with utility problems. Paperwork has been streamlined and made uniform for all utilities. Counselors at the centers not only help with bills and shut-offs, but also educate clients on energy conservation. Home repair advice and services are offered, and a homeless prevention program was launched this year. Twenty-two thousand households are served by the centers.

“There’s a big emphasis on self-help and education,” says Robinson. “Most people do not understand how their houses work. They don’t know how to make their heating system run efficiently or how to do caulking and repair work.”

Those who are physically able are taught how to make the repairs themselves. For the elderly and disabled, the centers offer limited services or refer them to another agency that handles major systems repairs.

“All the centers aggressively recruit volunteers from their client base, as well as local universities and businesses,” says Robinson. “They work to bring volunteers up to the level so that if there’s a staff opening they’re able to be hired.” The majority of paid counselors come from the ranks of the poor and unemployed. Crews doing weatherization and home repair also generally come from the local neighborhoods where they work.

The Energy Coordinating Agency and the centers are supported by the city, state and utilities, as well as federal block grants. “The hardest part is maintaining the commitment of institutions and government. Unless you have that, the coordination is very hard to do,” says Robinson. “It requires agreement by all the players that the program makes sense and that it’s in their interest to coordinate their services with others.” This year, the program will be working with the city to crack down on landlords who maintain substandard housing. “We’re going after the landlords. We’ll give them an opportunity to make the repairs, and give them a low interest loan,” says Robinson. “But if that fails, we’ll use power of code enforcement to put a lien on the properties.” More than half of the low-income clients are renters.

Despite the intensive efforts of the agency, the energy crisis in the city is unabated. Utility shut-offs have continued to rise, with 50,000 people having their gas shut-offs a year, 20,000 households losing their electricity, and nearly that many families without water. The persistence of the problem is aggravated by the relatively low priority given to conservation and education by utilities.

“The utilities have moved from no role in low-income efforts to a very major role,” says Robinson. “They now contribute more resources locally than the federal government. Those resources tend to take the form of bill subsidies, with too little going to conservation and education. You can be investing $1,000 in a bill subsidy every year, and meanwhile, if that house is not properly maintained, it continues to deteriorate and the bills continue to go up. The investment in conservation and education needs to be comparable if we’re ever going to turn the corner.”

Portland: Nonprofits Focus on Education and Self-Help

Portland, Oregon, has led the way in fashioning a comprehensive energy strategy that includes improving energy efficiency in municipal, commercial, industrial and residential buildings, increasing recycling and decreasing waste, and developing telecommunications as an energy-efficiency strategy. By the year 2000, Portland hopes to increase energy efficiency by 10 percent, thereby freeing $100 million for other needs.

Included in this effort are two programs, one citywide and one statewide, directed towards the energy concerns of low-income people.

The Community Energy Project is a nonprofit self-help program that runs free workshops for low-income households, teaching participants how to weatherstrip, caulk, install vinyl storm windows and other measures. Participants who meet the income criteria are given materials, in the form of rebates from the utilities.

“The whole idea is to make the houses more comfortable. We also reduce the energy bill by encouraging behavioral changes,” says Bob Chaples, executive director of the project.

The two-hour workshops are held in the evenings in schools and community centers and are led by people from the neighborhoods who are trained and paid a $25 stipend.

Each year, 45 workshops are held for low-in-come people, 10 of them targeted at special groups, such as immigrants for whom the workshops are held in Spanish.

In addition to the workshops, the project organizes teams of volunteers to help elderly and disabled people with home repairs. Seven-hundred volunteers, recruited from local factories, schools and businesses, participate annually, working on 200 homes.

“With the senior program, we do a pre-work audit of the home, which tells us which materials are needed,” says Chaples. “We walk the residents through the house and show them where their energy dollars are going, and how our materials will help make their home more comfortable.”

Also based in Portland is Oregon Heat, a statewide program, that is striving to fill the void left by shrinking energy assistance federal funds. “In 1983 our LIHEAP allotment was $25 million. This year, it’s down to $10.8 million,” says executive director Jay Formick. “The trend seems to suggest it will continue to be cut until there’s nothing left.”

Oregon Heat’s main mission is to raise funds for energy assistance. Last year, they raised $630,000. “What we would like to do is help low-income households become more self-reliant so they don’t need energy assistance,” says Formick. “We want to empower people, not just give them a handout.”

To that end, Oregon Heat organized the Energy Education Project, staffed by VISTA volunteers. The volunteers go to communities across the state, working with local social service agencies to identify low-in-come families who would benefit from energy conservation education.

Volunteers must learn to tailor their education and advice to a wide variety of circumstances. For one, Oregon’s climate ranges from high desert to rainforest to coastal. There are also differences in urban and rural needs and in culture and language – in eastern Oregon, for example, there is a large Hispanic population. And people use many different heating sources, including gas, oil, electric and wood.

“All of this presents a challenge to meet the needs of low-income households,” says Formick.

Pilot studies show that energy education can result in an 18 percent reduction in energy use in low-income households, a goal for which Oregon Heat is aiming. Combined with weatherization, reductions can be as high as 30 percent.

The Project is labor intensive, and its original plans of a massive statewide saturation have been scaled back to a more modest goal of reaching 1,200 households by early 1996. Volunteers begin with a home walk-through and energy audit. This is followed by a workshop and one final home visit, to make sure people understand the conservation suggestions.

Half the clients are renters, mostly based in Portland, and the other half are homeowners living in rural areas. “We discovered that renters are often disinclined to effect any kind of behavioral change,” says Formick. “They see it as the landlord’s problem, even when [the renters] are paying for the electric bill.”

The Project’s goal is to set up ongoing energy centers, which will continue to educate people after the VISTA volunteer moves on. “We don’t want a centralized program,” says Formick. “It’s our intention to get local communities organized so they’ll pick it up and run with it.” For example, in the town of LaGrande in eastern Oregon, the VISTA volunteer recruited employees at a local hardware store to support an ongoing energy education effort in the community.

Formick acknowledges the challenge is formidable – even in Oregon, a state with low utility rates. “There are more and more working poor who have a bona fide need but who don’t qualify for LIHEAP,” he says. “All the energy education in the world probably won’t help meet that need. But we’ll make a dent in it, and also have a not insignificant benefit to the environment.”

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