Weatherization is the process of protecting a home or building from the outside elements. Often this means insulating the home to reduce the effect of extremely hot or cold outdoor temperatures on indoor spaces. Weatherization includes air sealing, plumbing, recessed lighting, replacing doors, windows and insulation in walls, and the installation of energy-efficient heating, cooling, and lighting systems. These changes improve thermal comfort and lower energy bills. Low-income households have the most to gain from these improvements because they spend as much as 14% of their total annual income on energy costs. In contrast, more affluent homes spend only 3.0% on energy costs.1
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To help low-income households weatherize their homes, the U.S. Department of Energy created the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) in 1976. In 2020, WAP supported the weatherization of about 35,000 homes, spending an average of $4,695 per home.1 In addition to basic weatherization, the WAP also covers installation of energy-efficient household lighting and appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators, called “baseloads.” The WAP is one of two major federal programs which support low-income households in meeting their energy needs. The other is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that is discussed in another article.
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In addition to direct energy benefits like lower energy bills, weatherization also offers a diverse assortment of so-called non-energy benefits to households, society, and utility ratepayers.2 The three largest benefits are related to health: reduced thermal stress due to under-heating the home during cold weather; decreased asthma symptoms; and improved ability to adhere to prescribed medications. These benefits are on top of reduced energy bills. Hundreds of thousands of low-income households have received benefits from weatherization. A survey of WAP recipients found at the average household received about $13,000 in non-energy benefits over a ten year period after work was done.2
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The energy and non-energy benefits of the WAP are not fully realized due to deficiencies in the design and implementation of the program. Three examples illustrate this point:
· Deferred assistance: An income-eligible household can be deferred assistance until certain home repairs are made to address moisture or standing water, mold, and structural issues. Deferral rates range from 5% to 60% of applicants across states. Many households cannot afford such repairs and are effectively locked out of the program.3
· Low coverage: Extremely low coverage plagues the WAP. In 2018 the WAP program enabled 90,541 homes to be weatherized. Yet 38.6 million households are eligible for weatherization, meaning that just 0.2% of low-income households in the United States receive the energy, health, and other quality of life benefits from weatherization.4
· Bias in housing tenure: The WAP is biased against renters. The share of WAP-recipient households that are renters is lower than the share of WAP-eligible households. Homeowners are overrepresented relative to their eligibility.
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The last problem is troublesome because renters experience a broader range of housing problems than homeowners. In 2019 the average income of homeowners ($77,400) is twice that of renters ($35,600) in the United States. The wealth gap is stunning: the median net worth of homeowners ($255,000) is 40 times that of renters ($6,300).5 By any measure, renters have less access to the resources necessary to maintain, improve, and repair their homes, including weatherization. As we described in another article, renters are more than twice as likely to report some form of energy insecurity relative to homeowners, such as difficulty paying an energy bill. These challenges are exacerbated by the ongoing decline in affordable rental housing, and the shift in the renting population towards older, minority, and non-traditional households.6
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (2021) pumped $3.2 billion in the WAP, and the Inflation Adjustment Act (2022) provided tax breaks to taxpayers who install energy efficiency measures, among other incentives. This legislation will have wide-ranging benefits. But the infrastructure bill is a one-time pulse of WAP funding. The WAP needs sustained funding at a level commensurate with the range of energy and non-energy benefits that it provides to reach a much larger share of the eligible population, and its bias against socially vulnerable renters must be addressed.
1 US Department of Energy: Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. 2022. Weatherization Assistance Program Fact Sheet. Link
2 Rose, Erin and Beth Hawkins. 2020. Background Data and Statistics on Low-Income Energy Use and Burden for the Weatherization Program: Update for Fiscal Year 2020. Link
3 Benshoff, Laura, A low-income energy-efficiency program gets $3.5B boost, but leaves out many in need, National Public Radio, May 13, 2022
4 Drehobl, Ariel, Weatherization Cuts Bills and Creates Jobs but Serves Only a Tiny Share of Low-income Homes, The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, July 7, 2020
5 Bhutta, Neil, et al. 2020. Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2016 to 2019: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances, Federal Reserve Bulletin, Vol. 106, No. 5.
6 Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, America’s Rental Housing 2020, Link