As the Democratic caucus continues to debate high-profile initiatives in the reconciliation bill, there is additional funding for one often-overlooked program that they cannot afford to leave on the cutting room floor. The Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, is vital to helping millions of low-income families adapt to rising temperatures by investing in the energy efficiency of their homes. At a proposed funding level of $3.5 billion, it is a rounding error in the bill that is expected to cost about $1.75 trillion, but it will have an outsized impact.
About one of three housing units in the nation house low- and moderate-income families. Many of these families struggle to pay their home energy bills each and every month. The average expenditure for a low-income family is about 8.6 percent of their monthly income as compared to 3 percent for all other families. For the lowest income families, the monthly expenditure can go as high as 30 percent.
Unfortunately, significant investments in energy and water efficiency that would reduce bills are out of reach for most low-income families. Households that cannot afford new appliances will continue to patch old, inefficient ones. Even weather stripping, insulation, and other low-cost interventions can be too expensive for families struggling to make ends meet. Without WAP to make these vital upgrades to low-income homes, they will not happen. Families will continue to live in leaky, inefficient homes, with energy bills they cannot afford, and their disproportionate energy use will continue to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
This is not rocket science. Unlike some of the larger provisions in the bill, WAP is not experimental or aspirational. It provides practical interventions that will support major improvements in the health and safety of the homes of low-income families and help them afford their home energy bills. In the past 45 years WAP has funded the weatherization of 7.4 million homes, resulting in an average reduction in annual household energy bills of $283. And its impact goes beyond just energy savings. The Department of Energy estimates that for every $1.00 invested in WAP, the program generates $1.72 in energy-related benefits and $2.78 in other benefits such as reduced healthcare costs resulting from a more livable home.
While many of the other provisions in the bill include short-term relief for struggling families, residential energy efficiency is a one-time investment that will permanently lower the household’s bills – not just for the family currently living in the home, but for every family that lives there for the next 30 years.
For those looking for places to cut, some would argue that the housing stock can wait. We would argue that we have already waited long enough. WAP has been underfunded for more than a decade. In 2019, the $278 million in funding was sufficient to weatherize 31,000 units. At that rate, it will take almost a century to fully weatherize all low-income housing units. The $3.5 billion weatherization proposal will fund investments in almost 400,000 homes, almost 13 times the program’s current capacity. And at only 0.2 percent of the $1.75 trillion in the reconciliation bill, investing in the Weatherization Assistance Program is a deal too good for Congress to pass up.
The reconciliation bill represents the country’s best chance to make up for lost time. And while these efforts will not be sufficient to address all low-income housing, they represent a substantial down payment on the problem.
As Congress and the Biden administration work to pare down the reconciliation bill to $1.75 trillion, they need to protect the provisions that provide long-overdue funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program. Struggling families need affordable, healthy, and efficient homes now. They cannot wait another decade for Congress to act.
Mark Wolfe is an energy economist who serves as the executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, representing state directors of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).Internet Explorer Channel Network