City’s Free Weatherization Program Needs More Participants

A federally funded program that gives low-income Houstonians the opportunity to reduce their energy bills is expiring next year. REEP, the City of Houston’s residential energy efficiency program weatherizes the homes of income-qualified Houstonians at no charge. The city hopes it can sign up enough qualified residents before the deadline — otherwise it will have to return the money. But despite the expected savings, the program suffers from low participation rates. Wendy Siegle has more.

For low-income Houstonians struggling to make ends meet, getting hit with a hundred dollar electricity bill at the end of the month can mean having to make a choice between keeping the thermostat on, and putting food on the table. The city is trying to help cash-strapped citizens save around 20 percent on their energy bills with REEP, its Residential Energy Efficiency Program. A year ago, the Department of Energy gave the city $23 million dollars in federal stimulus funds to weatherize the homes of qualifying residents. Ana Shah is a community liaison with REEP.

“For example a family of four with two adults and two kids would need a gross annual income of $44,000 dollars or less.”

Once approved, city contractors conduct health and safety tests on the home.

“We check the home for things like lead. We check for mold. And we check for carbon monoxide poisoning. We check for asbestos also.”

Shah says this is one of the most beneficial parts of the program. Once the assessment is completed, the contractors get to work on making the home more energy efficient.

“We definitely insulate the attic and the walls of the home, because that’s where most of the energy escapes. We put energy star appliances into the home. For example if the refrigerator is over ten years old we can put a new refrigerator in. We can weather strip the doors. We can caulk all the windows to make sure air doesn’t escape from them.”

The city has the money to weatherize 10,000 homes before the program ends in August. Shah says 100,000 households in Houston qualify for the program, yet the city has only received 5,000 applications – just thirty percent of which have been approved so far. So why aren’t more people taking up the offer? Bob Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University, says it’s partly to do with advertising. He says the vast majority of qualified Houstonians aren’t aware the program exists.

“It’s not a program that gets a high level of visibility.”

But for those who do know about REEP, some still choose not to participate. Professor Stein surveyed 500 potentially eligible residents earlier this year. They were told about the program and asked if they’d be interested in participating.

“We found that the biggest obstacle to participation was simply the cost of participation. That is, required in part of participation was to be home when the weatherization is being done.”

The city requires residents to be home when the contractors arrive. That way they can let the workers in and be on hand to give their input. This presents a major disincentive for a lot of people says Stein. He says many low-income workers can’t afford to take time off work to stay at home. But Shah says the contractors are flexible and can come on weekends.

“We make an effort to make the appointment at least a week out, if not two weeks out, so that people can accommodate their schedule.”

Stein did find that when told about the cost-saving benefits of the program, 69 percent of respondents said they would participate. The city has $18 million dollars in stimulus funds left for REEP. If all of the money isn’t used by August the DOE will send it somewhere else.

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