Has Detroit's weatherization assistance program worked, and what happens to it now?

If you ask Detroiter Joshua Payne what he enjoys most about his century-old house, it’s not the balcony, the big side yard, or the porch wide enough to swing. Rather, it’s that the two-story duplex, situated on the city’s west side, belongs to him. In 2019, home ownership became a reality for the City of Detroit employee, and his wife Carletta, who are raising their toddler son and teenage daughter in 2100 square feet of local history. 

“I just love being a homeowner,” says Payne, 33, a lifelong Detroit resident. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”

But a house built in 1921 comes with challenges. Since they moved into the home in 2020, the Payne’s have struggled to keep warm through Michigan’s chilly winters. It’s as if the heat evaporated the minute the furnace stopped running, Payne says, causing his family to raise the thermostat continually. Their winter gas bills have ranged from $500 to $600 a month. The energy burden has been an unaffordable aspect of homeownership the couple didn’t see coming, yet, one all too common in Detroit.

Joshua Payne, and his wife Carletta, are proud of their historic home, but are all too aware of how much work it needs.

Payne turned to Southwest Solutions, a nonprofit he has a history with, for guidance. The neighborhood organization supports Southwest Detroit residents with counseling, and housing and economic solutions. Here, he found out about Michigan’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), run by Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency (Wayne Metro), and immediately applied. 

The wait for help was long, particularly due to Wayne County’s high COVID-19 infection rates, and statewide labor shortages. But this past April, two years after he applied, Wayne Metro made significant weatherization upgrades to Payne’s historic home. The energy efficiency measures won’t only provide relief in his bills, he says, but they’ll add value and safety to his home, and his neighborhood, that he couldn’t otherwise afford. 

Attic insulation installed at the Payne family's 100-year-old home is designed to increase energy efficiency.

Trying to Lift the Energy Burden

The median metro Detroit household pays 3.8% of its income to energy bills, compared to 3.1% for the median American household, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). This is partially related to Detroit’s large amount of aging housing stock, 62% of which was built before 1950. For low-income households, who have less access to opportunities and resources, the energy burden is 3.7 times higher than non-low-income households. Also, certain groups have disproportionately higher energy burdens than the median household, the council finds, such as Black, Hispanic, Native American, senior citizens (65+), renters, and low-income multifamily building residents. 

In Detroit, nearly a third of households have a high energy burden (above 6%), according to ACEEE. The median energy burden of Black households in the city is 54% higher than that of non-Hispanic white households. High energy burdens are connected with greater risk for respiratory diseases, increased stress and economic hardship, and struggle to move out of poverty, the report says. Many households who are carrying the highest energy burdens have also been hardest hit when it comes to the pandemic’s health and economic impacts.

The goal of WAP is to permanently reduce energy costs for low-income households by increasing the energy efficiency of homes, while prioritizing residents’ health and safety. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the national program provides weatherization measures such as foundation and wall insulation, attic insulation and ventilation, air leakage reduction, dryer venting installation, etc. Since 2011, Wayne Metro has helped over 3800 Wayne County residents cut their energy burdens by $250-$450 per year. The program is currently working to provide custom-tailored services to over 400 clients, renters and homeowners alike. 

This is not a home repair program, says Michele Robinson, executive director of Green and Healthy Homes at Wayne Metro, which is the biggest misconception people have. Robinson has been overseeing the WAP program for Wayne County since 2021. Focused on providing energy-saving measures, the program doesn’t include funding for structural repairs like roofs, windows or doors, plumbing, or electrical updates, issues many applicants also need addressed.

With a median income level in the city just under $32,500, Detroiters applying to WAP generally meet its low-income requirement. But, clients must also live in a home that is weatherization ready, with a functional roof, no moisture or mold, no active knob-and-tooth wiring, no asbestos, and no significant missing drywall or windows. Due to the county’s older housing stock, concentrated in Detroit, and the systematic barriers residents have historically faced, and are still facing today, to opportunities in income and lending, WAP’s average deferral rate is 75%. Only 1 out of 4 homes coming into the program is production-ready.  

Whether a unit is weatherization-ready at intake determines how long a client may be in the program. In general, if the home is set to go, it could be a few months, says Robinson. If not, the process can run six months and beyond, and requires a “blending and braiding" of resources to help get that unit ready, she says. COVID-19 health risks, labor shortages, and rising material costs have significantly challenged the program’s weatherization timelines, operations, and ability to spend all its federal funding.

The weatherization program does not cover structural repairs but focuses instead on ways to reduce energy costs.

Money left on the table

The federal funding left in Michigan’s five-year WAP program grant expired on June 30. At this point, it’s unclear exactly how much was returned to the DOE, as the program is based on actual cost reimbursement. As of mid-June, the state had not received billings for May and June, typically two of the program’s biggest spending months, says Bob Wheaton, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS). 

But, as of the end of April, approximately $15.7 million of Michigan’s approximately $19.1 million was unspent. 

“Many states have underspent grants due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be returning funds to Department of Energy,” says Wheaton, “which has told grantees that the returned funds will go back into the formula allocation and be spread across all states and territories in future years to go back into the program.”
The DOE has renewed the nationwide program for another five years. Michigan is slated to receive approximately $20 million in annual formula program funds in the next round, he says, as it also begins receiving about $183 million in stimulus funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). With the assurance of renewed funding, Wayne Metro said it planned to re-open its weatherization application on July 1, which has been closed due to the program meeting its capacity. Currently, the application link is not yet live, but applicants can join an interest list on the website or contact Wayne Metro Connect Center for further assistance. 
So why, in a time of great economic and housing needs, did states like Michigan leave federal funding on the table? 
COVID-19 has had a number of effects on the WAP program. For one, there was a period of time when agencies had to cancel in-person work. In places like Wayne County, where transmission rates and deaths were high, the danger lingered for many months. Statewide, significantly lower amounts of weatherization jobs were completed in 2020 and 2021, causing grant funding to roll over into the fifth program year. But, the federal program only allows for an $8,000 maximum average to be invested into a home. This, coupled with rising costs, and a high amount of regulation on costs for specific measure installation, Wheaton says, prevents weatherization providers like Wayne Metro from simply installing more on units to make up for the hiatus in work. 
“In fact, because materials and labor costs have increased, it has become more difficult for measures to be cost-justified (have a savings to investment ratio of 1.0 or greater) and so less measures are allowable to be installed,” he says. “This means less money is being spent in homes and less measures are installed for clients.” This is due to federal program rules, he adds, which would take an act of Congress to change.
“Per federal statute, the adjusted average cost per dwelling unit (ACPU) is only allowed to increase by the amount of inflation or 3%, whichever is lower,” Wheaton says. “[DOE] released the $8,009 limit [for the 2022-2023 program year] in alignment with federal statute. Any increase in the ACPU helps, but it is not proportionately keeping up with the rising cost of materials/labor for installations, so it does not address the root of the barriers to program expansion or achieving all goals,” he says. 

Working together to stretch resources
This is where that “blending and braiding” of funding comes in. Wayne Metro has partnered with state and local government and other nonprofit organizations to do just this. The average amount spent on weatherization per home, using a combination of DOE funds and Michigan’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds is $11,300. Robinson says, though some have cost upwards of $17,000. This spending goes both to increase the energy efficiency of the home as well as to make it more safe. 
Through advocacy, the agency has also secured some deferral funds and home repair dollars to assist units with moving through the production cycle, where in the past, Robinson says, they would have gotten hung up there. As of mid-June, the agency was trending to meet 85% of its allocated units by the end of its program year on June 30.

“We have been pretty innovative in how we use, particularly our Community Services Block Grant Dollars (CSBG) to help combat some of that,” she says. According to MDHHS, Michigan’s federal CSBG allocation averages about $23 million per year, and is the primary financial resource for the operation of Community Action Agencies (CAAs).

Wayne Metro’s partnership with the City of Detroit’s housing department is making significant strides to address WAP's deferral rates. Through its Renew Detroit program, the City is spending $20 million American Rescue Plan (ARPA) dollars to replace roofs for its low-income senior and disabled homeowners. A nonfunctional roof is the number one reason client’s aren’t ready for weatherization. Of the 1000 residents initially selected for the city's program, priority went to residents who were either on the senior emergency repair waitlist, or had already received a deferral letter from Wayne Metro based on their roof’s condition. When those deferred applicants receive a new roof, they’ll be fast tracked to immediately receive weatherization.

“What we're doing is creating an entire pipeline for home repair, because we know there's enough need for it,” says Heather Zygmontowicz, chief of special housing programs & strategic implementation for the City of Detroit. “We really want to get to the point where, if we’re going to a home, can we make it such that they're not calling back in a year, or two years, or five years, hopefully not for a very long time because we've truly met all the needs of the house?"

This is difficult, she says, because there are so many rules that come with every single funding source. It’s critical to make sure residents’ homes can function with other programs, she says, and with other support services. Her department is working with Wayne Metro to secure an additional grant from DOE’s innovation funding that would allow the agency to take on 100% of residents coming out of Renew Detroit. The grant would help streamline getting inspectors out to do weatherization checks around the same time the city is finalizing their work on the home, and lend some additional funding for repairs, other than roofs, that cause deferrals. 

Creating a pipeline of services for low-income residents around housing is a goal many have in mind. Wayne Metro is one of six community organizations that have formed the Detroit Housing Network, led by CHN Housing Partners, and supported by the Rocket Community Fund. The group is working to share data, and leverage services, without duplicating efforts. Once it's up and running, residents will be able to plug in at any DHN location to get connected to a centralized database of home repair grants, utility assistance, weatherization applications, property tax solutions, and financial and mortgage counseling. This type of comprehensive support network for residents was recently created in Philadelphia, a city that, like Detroit, also has a large amount of old housing stock, and a high amount of homeowners living in poverty.

“I think we have to be honest, looking at the city's history, and just the nation's history as a whole, to understand that a whole subset of homeowners have really been systematically cut out, and not given access to the lending products that are necessary to update homes for a very long time,” says Zygmontowicz.

Systemic racism, aging housing and poverty have combined to create “a perfect storm of a home repair crisis” in Detroit, she says. And everyone who’s working to address this crisis is pulling from the same pool of labor. The pool, however, is very shallow.

Creating green(er) jobs

Before COVID-19, Michigan suffered from a lack of general contractors, as baby boomers began to retire from their trades. In the Tri-county area, there's been a significant need, especially in and around the weatherization space. A key position lacking in the field are energy auditors. This role is pivotal in getting the initial audit done after home assessments, in order to move units through production. Through its innovation lab, Wayne Metro has been working to provide on-the-job training for green jobs such as this.

In the bigger picture, the innovation grant the agency and the City of Detroit are applying to the DOE for that would fast-track residents from one program to the next, includes a workforce development component provided by Walker Miller Energy Services. The Detroit-based company has a training program that is preparing to scale,  says Zygmontowicz. Neither Wayne Metro nor the city has the dollars to invest in outside assessments, which, if done more quickly, she says, would allow both organizations to better spend their administrative dollars.

A larger green workforce would mean more Detroit residents like the Payne’s could enjoy a home that's affordable, environmentally-friendly, and physically safe. This past spring, Wayne Metro spent over two weeks weatherizing the family’s 101-year-old home from basement to attic. They insulated the attic (removing its squirrel occupants) and the glass block windows and foundation in the basement. They drilled holes in the exterior to weatherize the home from the outside, as well as from within. They replaced the poorly-fitted side door, and ran tests to find additional areas that still required sealing. The program also installed two new furnaces for their duplex along with a new water heater, all of which came with warranties.

Relieved to have his energy burden lightened, Payne says he plans to continue connecting with Wayne Metro's services in the future, possibly to assist him in lowering his property taxes next. He hopes that by talking with others about his experience with the WAP program, his neighbors might also have the opportunity to better their homes, and ultimately, their shared community.

"These [programs] are important because people like myself, they're not financially able to afford certain things that are expensive to get done. They recognize that,” he says, about the agency. “They're here to help people who work hard, like myself, and others, that want more, and want better, but just need a little helping hand sometimes."

All photos by Nick Hagen.
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Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller