This is the fourth article from A Green New Deal on the Ground, a series produced with Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank developing cutting-edge research at the climate and inequality nexus. The series examines how Green New Deal initiatives aim to create climate policy that positively impacts everyday life. It also explores the political coalitions and campaigns centering environmental justice and equity in decarbonization across the US and champions both broad-based movement building and institutional power to harness resources and push for change.
In August 2022, Pennsylvania saw a major win for public investment when the state legislature established the Whole-Home Repairs Program. Designed to improve housing livability and affordability and prepare state residents for a low-carbon future, the program will fund grants for low- and moderate-income homeowners to undertake significant home repairs. It will also provide loans and other support to small landlords (accompanied by affordability protections for renters) to repair homes.
The program merits review as it reveals that home repair and retrofitting are popular programs that can mobilize coalitions and secure large-scale public investment. Such programs can simultaneously advance progress toward both climate and housing justice—including increasing affordability, remedying legacies of racial inequality, and securing better housing for the elderly and disabled—all while creating jobs.
The Whole-Home Repairs Program
WHR’s main sponsor is Nikil Saval, a progressive Democratic senator representing Philadelphia’s District 1. Saval was elected in 2020 on a democratic socialist platform, which included housing justice and a state-level Green New Deal.
In August 2022, after a year-long coalition-building push that led to WHR’s passage, the program’s language was written into Pennsylvania’s fiscal code. The state’s Department of Community and Economic Development was named the program’s administrator. The Pennsylvania General Assembly approved an initial $125 million for WHR in the 2022–2023 state budget. This funding was sourced from Pennsylvania’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan, approved by the Biden Administration in March 2021 for broad-based pandemic relief and recovery efforts, and from a 2022 state budget surplus. This first year of funding will seed the program and show proof of concept. Saval and other coalition partners intend to level ongoing pressure to increase funding in future budget cycles.
Each Pennsylvania county may apply for a share of WHR funding, allocated according to a formula based on counties’ median income by household size, the average age of housing stock, and the number of households that meet a set income limit. County governments may run their WHR program themselves or authorize a nonprofit entity to do so.
Counties may spend up to $50,000 in WHR funds per home on repairs through grants to eligible homeowners and loans for small landlords. Homeowners are eligible if their household income does not exceed 80 percent of the area median income. Landlords are eligible if they own no more than five properties and if they keep rent at affordable rates. Eligible uses of WHR funds include repairs or retrofits to address quality and safety concerns, improve energy and water efficiency, and add accessibility infrastructure, such as wheelchair ramps and handrails for people with disabilities.
WHR funds may also be spent on county-level program administration (for example, hiring new staff to work with homeowners on the application process) and to create workforce development programs—training qualified home-repair workers, supporting apprenticeships, and connecting trainees to jobs through employer partnerships. Dedicating resources to growing the workforce that will construct and transform homes is essential to building large-scale, lasting change.
Homeowners should be able to apply for funds in spring 2023 and start to receive funding in spring or summer.
Making Home Repairs Affordable
WHR presents a novel solution to two major problems confronting existing home weatherization and retrofitting programs: delivering enough resources upfront to cover major repairs and providing grants that do not impose further financial pressures on cost-burdened households.
A central challenge facing home-repair efforts is lower-income households’ inability to access the financial resources needed to pay for them—even interventions like energy-efficiency retrofits that should pay themselves back over time in the form of lower household energy bills. While many utility, nonprofit, and government programs—such as the federally funded, state-administered Weatherization Assistance Program, or WAP—provide some weatherization assistance to low-income homeowners, these programs have historically been underfunded, understaffed, and over-subscribed.
Previous government efforts to muster more resources to meet this challenge have taken the form of public-private partnerships and exotic forms of debt finance sold to low-income households. For example, California, Florida, and Missouri have started using residential Property Assessed Clean Energy lending, a novel financing tool, to pay for bigger retrofitting jobs. But consumer advocates have charged PACE lenders with predatory lending practices.
Weatherization funds have not historically covered the full cost of needed repairs. For example, replacing a roof might cost $10,000—but the average WAP grant is only around $8000 per household. Further, WAP typically defers or denies applications to fix leaky roofs if the homes have major mold issues since fixing such leaks might worsen indoor air quality, an issue affecting over 50 percent of households applying for Philadelphia’s WHR funds. A significant goal of WHR has been to fill this gap by funding bigger repair work and connecting households with programs that can provide further resources for more modest repairs and technological upgrades.
WHR will also build more durable county-level infrastructure for assisting homeowners applying to other home-repair programs, whose application processes are often piecemeal and overly bureaucratic. The program’s technical assistance funding is intended to help counties increase enrollment in home-repair programs across the board by creating a clear entry point and connecting programs through tools like a one-stop digital application portal.
A Public Good
As in most other states, Pennsylvania’s housing stock needs major repairs. The issue is particularly serious in Pennsylvania because the state has some of the oldest housing stock in the country. More than half of all homes in Pennsylvania were built before 1970, and more than 60 percent of renter-occupied homes and apartments are over 50 years old.
Drawing on Data for Progress polling, Saval and coalition partners have argued that one in four Pennsylvanians lives in a home that needs a critical repair. US Census data suggest that more than 280,000 homes in Pennsylvania have moderate to severe physical deferred maintenance problems, like exposed wiring, failing roofs, dysfunctional heating and plumbing systems, lead plumbing, and mold.
At 69 percent, Pennsylvania’s homeownership rate is high relative to other states, though the number of renters is on the rise. The Philadelphia Energy Authority has characterized the city’s housing situation as one of high poverty with relatively high homeownership. It notes that many homes are passed on between family members.
As in other US states, homeownership rates in Pennsylvania are marked by racial inequality. For example, while over 75 percent of White households in the Philadelphia area own their homes, only around 50 percent of Black and Latinx households do.
Moreover, the state is experiencing a housing affordability crisis as housing prices and rents rise. As the most recent Pennsylvania Comprehensive Housing Study puts it, “Increasing income inequality, combined with fewer low-cost housing options, is translating into large cost burdens and a deficit of affordable and available units at the low end of the income spectrum.” In the face of these housing challenges, advocates for WHR have argued that it is “a great way to preserve the affordable homes that people are already living in” by making needed livability repairs possible and reducing the costs of basic home operations—important factors in forced home abandonment.
Given rising electricity costs, home energy bills have become a serious driver of unaffordability—more than 20 million US households are behind on their utility bills. Such costs are a major argument for energy-efficiency repairs and retrofits. Older homes are particularly impacted as they tend to be poorly insulated and energy inefficient; over half the energy used in Pennsylvania homes goes to space heating. Half of Pennsylvania homes heat with natural gas, and Pennsylvania homes remain unusually dependent on fuel oil and propane: almost 20 percent of households in the state still used these older heating fuels in 2020, particularly in rural areas.
After Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission allowed the state’s COVID moratorium on utility shut-offs for unpaid bills to expire in 2021, 116,000 customers were disconnected. Pennsylvanians’ utility power bills rose by as much as 50 percent in the winter of 2021, and September of 2022 saw another round of double-digit increases. The price of propane and fuel oil skyrocketed by 28 percent and 86 percent, respectively, between March 2021 and 2022. Meanwhile, natural gas prices for Pennsylvania households went up 30 percent between February 2021 and 2022 and were consistently up 13 to 28 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year. Transformative levels of investment are needed to repair Pennsylvania’s aging buildings and tackle its legacies of deferred housing-stock maintenance.
Crucially, resolving these livability and affordability crises will simultaneously advance Pennsylvania’s decarbonization efforts—critical in a state whose energy supply remains dominated by nonrenewable sources. According to Saval, the multiple benefits of home repair and retrofitting helped draw together a coalition of WHR supporters, including housing, economic, racial, and climate justice advocates from across the state. Saval explains,
The Whole-Home Repairs program is a housing security initiative, an energy initiative (and thus, a climate initiative), an anti-blight initiative, a jobs initiative, a community safety initiative, and an anti-gentrification initiative. The cumulative effect of all of these things means that this program can tackle many of the root causes of community instability by keeping people in their homes and keeping these homes safe and healthy.…[Moreover, it is] not an urban issue or a suburban issue or a rural issue. With hundreds of thousands of homes across the state in need of critical repair, this is an issue that transcends geography, and, of course, that transcends political affiliation.
According to Saval’s team, central organizations in the WHR coalition include POWER Interfaith, Pennsylvania Stands Up, and Make the Road PA—entities deeply committed to racial and economic justice and which organize in diverse communities across the state. However, the coalition included nearly 60 organizations statewide, many of which operate outside of the state’s major urban areas.
The coalition organized rallies, public hearings, call-in days, and other tactics like messaging discipline to grow support for WHR. This sustained, broad-based movement building helped organizers realize WHR’s progressive vision despite Republican control of the state legislature at the time. WHR’s organizing drive is helping coalesce a statewide housing justice movement for the first time and creating new openings for energy communities to build alliances with justice and labor advocates.
WHR makes crucial headway on a challenging set of problems and has the capacity for further ambition and scale. For example, in a state heavily dependent on fossil fuels, retrofits provide an important pathway toward decarbonization, as well as protection from volatile energy prices and crises. While WHR does not yet fund such technological upgrades, the program could be expanded to do so.
There will be substantial obstacles to a just, low-carbon transition both in Pennsylvania and across the United States. However, Pennsylvania already has a robust network of activists and organizations working toward this goal. With WHR, they have shown how to build a foundation for a better future.