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An energy efficiency program that helps low-income households lower their utility bills got a $3.5 billion boost from the infrastructure bill last year. But as NPR's Laura Benshoff reports, many people the program is supposed to help cannot take advantage of it because their homes need too much work.
LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: In a North Philadelphia row home, Joseph Davis (ph) and his wife raised five children. He's lived there so long he and his daughters can't remember exactly when the family moved in.
JOSEPH DAVIS: About 40 years - we've been here about 40 years?
VERONICA STOVALL: I was in the third grade. Ness (ph), you know what year we moved here?
STOVALL: In '55? No. Junior was born in '55.
BENSHOFF: Eighty-nine-year-old Davis, now widowed, wants to stay in the house as long as he can. His daughters are nearby to look after him. When he got something in the mail offering to retrofit his home last year, daughter Veronica Stovall (ph) signed him up. After they sent in the paperwork, an inspector came by and found issues. Stovall takes me to the second floor and points out the roof leak.
STOVALL: This was the worst. Oh, yeah - because it's separating there. It's a hole.
BENSHOFF: The whole program they applied to, called Weatherization Assistance, covers repairs that make a house more energy efficient, things like adding insulation or replacing windows. On average, recipients then save hundreds of dollars a year on their energy bills. But under the federal regulations, homes where the work would be ineffective because of significant repair needs or the costs run too high are rejected. Stovall says they looked into getting the roof and other issues fixed, but it was too pricey even with financial assistance.
STOVALL: It was a thick letter saying these were all the repairs needed, and it came to something like $30,000.
BENSHOFF: Around half of all people who apply for weatherization assistance in Philadelphia are rejected because their homes need extensive repairs, says Steve Luxton, the executive director of a group that does weatherization assistance here.
STEVE LUXTON: Low-income homes typically have a lot more issues because there's always a lack of discretionary income.
BENSHOFF: And it's not just a Philadelphia problem. While there are no national statistics, a 2017 survey in Pennsylvania found 1 in 3 households that apply are rejected. In rural western Wisconsin, one group reported deferring nearly 60% of applicants.
DAVID BRADLEY: It's not simply rural or tribal or located in various sections of the country. Every state, we're dealing with this problem.
BENSHOFF: That's David Bradley, who heads up a group which lobbies Congress on behalf of weatherization organizations. With an extra $3.5 billion for weatherization in the infrastructure law, the federal government wants to retrofit many more homes. And it is trying to work on those that are left out. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would create a repair fund just for these homes. Bradley says that kind of policy change is needed to make the program live up to its promise.
BRADLEY: Otherwise, you're not really addressing the environmental injustice, the disparity on the lowest of the low income. You're not dealing with those that need it the most.
BENSHOFF: But he says even if that bill passes, the actual need is likely several times the proposed amount of $65 million a year. Some states and cities are already tackling this issue on their own, bundling together different funding sources to keep homes in the program. Rezefer Young (ph), who goes by Cookie (ph), is a retired hotel housekeeper who recently got new windows thanks to one such initiative helping a few dozen people in Philadelphia.
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BENSHOFF: Young says she also got a new roof, among other repairs.
REZEFER YOUNG: My back door - they had to do the back door because it wasn't closing right.
BENSHOFF: Some of this work was with federal weatherization money, some from the city and some from Habitat for Humanity. Young says she doesn't know how much it would have cost her.
YOUNG: I'm not even going to think. I just thank God I'm getting it done.
BENSHOFF: But she does see the savings in her gas bill every month, which means her home is getting more energy efficient.
Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Philadelphia.
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