Protecting Pockets and the Planet: Tackling the Climate and Housing Crises Simultaneously

Protecting Pockets and the Planet: Tackling the Climate and Housing Crises Simultaneously

Policy | How weatherizing affordable housing could save Philadelphians cash and the city its carbon footprint.

October 25, 2022

3 min read; 711 words

Tags: Energy Policy

Author: Bronwyn Patterson

Philadelphia has not escaped the sweeping and persistent casualties of the housing crisis bubble that arose in late 2006. Though historically more affordable than other major cities, the influx of new businesses and residents that has accompanied the city’s continued growth over the past decade has plunged Philadelphians- particularly low income and minority residents- into cost burdened living.

To meet the federal standard for being considered cost-burdened, a household must spend over thirty percent of their income on housing related costs such as rent, mortgage payments, utilities, and property taxes. While being cost-burdened is not exclusive to low income residential brackets, Philadelphia’s status as the poorest large city in the continental United States has led to 4 out of 10 households in the city being cost-burdened, with sixty-nine percent of cost-burdened households maintaining incomes below $30,000 per annum.

However, one key climate innovation could increase affordability and decrease greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously: the weatherization of subsidized and affordable housing.

Residential energy usage accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Research shows that most public housing units, such as those in subsidized and affordable housing around Philadelphia, are pushing 40 years old and notorious for letting heat leak from cracks, basements, unsealed windows, and poorly insulated walls. That wasted latent energy hikes up not only energy bills for low income residents, but also fossil fuel usage across the city.

Energy efficiency is going to be the deciding factor in slowing anthropogenic climate change over the next half-decade. That’s why the subsidization of weatherizing and repairs for low income housing is so crucial. Most residents simply cannot afford the critical repairs that pile up over 40 years, but without weatherization each household is responsible for 2.65 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

Yet for such an important step in reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, weatherization is surprisingly cost-effective.

Even on the smallest of scales, weatherization methods such as air sealing windows, insulating hot water tanks, and sealing ceiling penetrations at light fixtures can prevent massive energy leakages from old homes. The Department of Energy reported that staff working for the Philadelphia Housing Authority was able to reduce air filtration underneath doorways by “25% with just a few hours of work and inexpensive materials”, with whole house energy consumption reduced by up to 10%.

The positive impacts of low-income weatherization are clear and meaningful. Single families living in weatherized homes save up to 283 dollars per year, with minimal energy efficiency strategies implemented; the potential savings and reduction in carbon emissions are staggering.

And for those that would becry extortionate costs of weatherizing all US affordable or assisted residencies, the data proves quite the opposite. Even including labor, the per unit cost of energy-efficiency measure implementation in Philadelphia alone was under 200 dollars, and the program-wide weatherization benefits of 2010’s Recovery Act supported over 28,000 new jobs.

As part of Biden’s climate initiative to reach net zero by 2050, the administration aims to protect the pockets of disadvantaged individuals and the planet. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) offers weatherization assistance to single family homes under 200% of the federal poverty line, a category into which hundreds of Philadelphia families fall.

However, under federal regulations, many of the repair requests are deferred due to ascertained exceedingly high repair costs or underlying issues in the house. For thousands of poor residents, reapplying for the federal program is out of the question. In Philadelphia specifically, half of the repair requests under WAP are deferred and never completed, according to the Energy Coordination Agency.

Outside of the WAP, though, are local and privatized agencies working to provide weatherization assistance; The ECA itself has spearheaded an initiative in Philadelphia to provide affordable weatherization for residents in the city’s Section 8 housing program. The 2022 Philadelphia Budget also notably included $125 million to be directed towards home repairs intended to preserve Philadelphia’s budget housing stock, with tax abatements offered by the city to developers offering low market rates or weatherization assistance within the housing units themselves.

One thing is clear: the weatherization of low income housing is cost-effective, cash-saving, carbon-footprint-reducing, and a step in the right direction towards creating a more equitable and sustainable urban environment for all.