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Energy Upgrades Can Make Homes More Affordable But Government Weatherization Programs Struggle To Get Off The Ground

Chris Biddle
Josh Schumacher qualified for energy upgrades for his home in Crested Butte from the Greendeed Program.

How do you solve America’s affordable housing crisis? Most people want to build their way out of the problem, but there are other ways to make homes more affordable. One of them is energy upgrades for homes, otherwise known as weatherization. And government weatherization efforts may have benefits beyond just housing. Advocates say they boost quality of life, promote climate resilience and save on the cost of housing. So why isn’t everyone doing it? KBUT’s Christopher Biddle has more.

Sometimes it's called home rehabilitation or an energy upgrade or a retrofit. We’ll call it weatherization. Details vary, but the basic idea is to use government money to pay for energy upgrades to homes. It’s money well spent according to the Biden administration. The president’s infrastructure plan calls for $213 billion for weatherization efforts.

That could be of good use in the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, where a pandemic boosted economic crisis has housing at its center. By the end of the summer, this tourist town had an estimated 15 percent of jobs go unfilled, and local officials fear the fall and winter could be worse.

“I think it's a very tight rope for this community to function. And we're missing it.” 

Troy Russ is the Crested Butte Community Development Director. He breaks the cost of living into three categories, transportation, basic essentials, and housing.

”And that would include the cost of energy towards housing….” 

And at 8,000 feet, Crested Butte and its surrounding communities can get cold in the winter - very cold.

“What we're finding is the the housing costs are simply dominating the budget. So there's no savings going on. There's very little insurance. And it's really it's skewing people's ability to live here.

That’s a familiar story to Josh Schumacher.

“I’m not good at budgeting HAHA!"

Schumacher provides vital work to the community. He used to be a chairlift mechanic at the local ski resort. Now…

“I fix rich people’s toilets!”

Schumacher moved here in the 90s and says that recently more and more of his peers are being priced out, while he’s figured out ways to stick around. That includes owning a deed-restricted house, which made him eligible for the towns’ Greendeed Weatherization program. Through Greendeed, Schumacher scored a new fridge and a fresh layer of insulation in his attic. As winter approaches, he’s hoping the upgrades will provide some relief to an electric bill that’s broken $900 in the past.

Chris Biddle
Josh Schumacher admires new insulation in his attic courtesy of the Greendeed Program.

“I'm kind of like a lot of people here," says Schumacher. "I live virtually paycheck to paycheck still, you know, I make enough to where I can put a little aside.”

Gesa Michel designed the Greendeed program and a similar, county wide effort for income qualified homes called Gunnison Valley Heat, also known as GVHeat.

“We have an income gap, a serious income gap," says Michel. "We have a serious resiliency gap, and that's what I'm trying to help with.”

Studies show that lower-income households usually put more of their money towards energy costs, which means they often get a better return on their upgrades. Last year, GVHeat saved an average of just over $460 per household.

But individual savings is often seen as just a secondary benefit to weatherization.

Crested Butte adopted the program originally as part of its climate action plan, and the Biden administration says targeted weatherization efforts will off-set racial and economic divides and boost quality of life for the poorest Americans.

With all those benefits, you’d think the idea would have taken off already, but according to the Brookings Institute, only two percent of the nearly 40 million eligible American homes are actually weatherized every year. Biden’s plan will most likely provide some boost, and then people like Gesa Michel still have to figure out how to spend the money, but she’s probably already got a plan. 

“You can't only just throw funding at something, you also need to build capacity,” says Michel.

Hard as it is to hire in any American industry right now, weatherization programs across the country have struggled for years. In another very cold place, veteran non-profit Efficiency Vermont, turned from contracting to hiring and training its own workforce. For projects in Gunnison and Crested Butte, where new construction dominates the attention of the workforce, Michel has to hire a team from the Alamosa Energy Resource center, some four hours away.

Josh Schumacher shows me around his upgrades on a Thursday, but he's all Friday vibes, packing his truck for a camping trip. In the glow of the evening sun, it’s obvious that Josh, fixer of rich people’s toilets, enjoys a high quality of life.  

“I've moved up the food chain as far as where I'm at financially," says Schumacher. "But it's good, because now I'm finally at…. I don't want to say comfortable, but I'm finally paying my bills with something left over so I can actually enjoy life. “

For Schumacher, a government sponsored weatherization program was part of that puzzle, and something that may soon be available for many more Americans trying to get by.

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