Last year, Congress allocated $3.5 billion over five years to a little-known federal program designed to help low-income households pay for energy efficiency upgrades like attic insulation, new windows, and energy-saving appliances. 

Called the Weatherization Assistance Program, or WAP, it’s one of the best tools the Biden administration has at its disposal to lower carbon emissions while investing in underserved communities. WAP has historically been funded at a few hundred million dollars per year, serving only about 0.2 percent of low-income households annually, by one estimate. So a new average of $700 million per year is a big deal.

But funding isn’t the only factor preventing WAP from reaching more people. The program has a fundamental flaw. Many homeowners who are eligible for WAP upgrades based on their income are ultimately turned away by program administrators, or “deferred,” told that their homes require repairs before any energy efficiency improvements can be made — repairs they often can’t afford.

“Deferrals are a significant problem for equity, because the households that could stand to benefit the most are not able to access a significant source of federal funding,” said Gabriel Chan, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Minnesota. Plus, the conditions that cause deferrals — plumbing problems, asbestos, and leaking roofs, to name a few — “layer health burdens on top of energy burdens,” he said.

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A new program in Pennsylvania aims to address the issue. Earlier this month, the legislature voted to create a $125 million Whole Home Repairs Program as part of the state budget. In addition to paying directly for new roofs, septic systems, and other structural repairs, the money will go toward building up the state’s administrative capacity to help people apply to the program and developing the skilled workforce available to do the repair and weatherization work. It was a rare win for progressive Pennsylvania Democrats, who secured bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled legislature.

“The issue cuts across geographies and partisan lines,” said Nikil Saval, the first-term state senator from Philadelphia who spearheaded the policy. “Virtually all of the legislators I talked to, Democratic or Republican, recognize the issue in their districts.”

The issue isn’t just lack of access to energy efficiency funding. It’s an aging housing stock, with homes falling into disrepair, which can lead to abandonment, which can contribute to the collapse of communities. 

Health and safety issues have also been exacerbated by the increase in extreme weather due to climate change. Saval’s program garnered support from community organizers like Angelo Ortega, an Allentown, Pennsylvania, resident whose house suffered damages when the remnants of Hurricane Ida blew through last year. He had just moved into his mother’s house to take care of her after an injury and was supposed to stay in the finished basement, but it flooded during the storm. Almost a year later, he and his mother, who suffers from asthma, are still trying to manage problems with mildew and can’t afford the work required to prevent future flooding. Friends of his in the community are in need of major roof repairs. 

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Ortega is a member of Make the Road Pennsylvania, a grassroots organization that advocates for working-class Latino communities. He said once Make the Road started spreading the word about Saval’s Whole Home Repairs proposal, a lot more people began showing up at their biweekly meetings, and Ortega learned how widespread the need for the program was.

“We didn’t know that there were so many persons with problems with their roofs, water decay, and persons with similar situations like myself with the basement flooding,” he told Grist. “It was an all-out expense for some of them.”

According to the most recent U.S. Census American Housing Survey, some 280,000 homes in Pennsylvania lack adequate plumbing, heating, or electricity, or have physical deficiencies like leaky roofs or pipes. But it’s unclear how many homeowners get deferred from the weatherization program  — neither the Department of Energy nor the state collects data on how many people apply to the program or how many are turned away. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the state agency that distributes WAP funding, recently surveyed the local agencies that actually implement the program to get a sense of how many homes were being deferred and came up with an estimate of 36 percent

Better data could be on the way. The U.S. Department of Energy recently told NPR that it aims to begin tracking deferrals in spring 2023. However, the agency’s instructions to states, tribes, and territories for 2022 says that tracking deferrals is optional.

Saval’s Whole Home Repairs Program isn’t the first aimed at addressing the issue. Vermont has a “zero deferral” policy, scraping together funds from different sources to pay for repairs. Since 2016, Delaware has run a “Pre-Weatherization” program that’s funded by proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a partnership between several Eastern states that forces power plant operators to buy permits to pollute.

Steve Luxton, the CEO of the Energy Coordinating Agency, a nonprofit that’s responsible for administering WAP in Delaware and Philadelphia, said the former’s Pre-Weatherization program is “as good as it could possibly get, to be honest with you.” Luxton estimates that in both places, close to 50 percent of eligible applicants are deferred due to structural issues. “In this case, rather than saying, ‘Well, I got bad news for you,’ we just let them know that you’ve got this issue. They don’t have to fill out documents or anything, we can take most of the information we already have and pretty much do what we have to do.”

Connecticut is launching a roughly $8 million Weatherization Barrier Remediation Program to pay for repairs this year. And last week, the Department of Energy announced several million in grants that will go to city and state agencies around the country for pre-weatherization work. 

The challenge for Pennsylvania, and for many of these other programs, is finding a stable source of funding. Both Pennsylvania and Connecticut’s programs are backed by grants from the American Rescue Plan Act, the COVID-19 stimulus package Congress passed last year.

“We will need to find a recurring source of funding, because this is one-time dollars,” said Saval.