Ethel Coward was constantly cold in her Quincy Street house two years ago. When the then 83-year-old stayed at home between cervical cancer treatments, she used portable heaters to keep warm. Drafty windows and a broken boiler kept the house so cold that Coward’s appetite and mobility diminished. Her heating bills were hundreds of dollars too high, so that her family thought the meter readers had made a mistake.
Then, in 2010, Coward received a new boiler and new windows for free through the federally funded Weatherization Assistance Program. Her heating bills plummeted and she was finally warm.
“The program is a life saver,” her son Stephen said. “I really believe that.”
Through this program, five organizations protect Brooklyn houses and apartments against changing temperatures, installing insulation, providing energy efficient appliances, sealing cracks and replacing heating and cooling systems. Among them, these groups have serviced roughly 67,800 housing units. And the number of households these groups can service depends on federal money offered through the Weatherization Assistance Program, created in 1976. But the level of federal funding is uncertain going forward until Congress approves the federal budget.
“We’ve been told the number would be significantly lower,” said Keisha Trujillo, weatherization program coordinator at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., which serves central Brooklyn and gave Coward her new windows and boiler.
The U.S. departments of Energy and Health and Human Services gave the state $71.3 million for weatherization programs and energy-related disaster relief for the current contract year, which ends March 31, according to New York State Homes and Community Renewal. The state estimates it will receive $45.5 million this year, based on preliminary federal budget information.
That’s not good news for the approximately 6,400 Brooklyn households on waiting lists hoping to make their homes more comfortable. This winter, New York City has experienced record low temperatures and a blizzard. And with lower temperatures comes higher heating costs that burden Brooklynites, especially low-income residents, said Avi Kamman, weatherization director at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, which serves mainly apartments buildings and is on track to service 100 households this contract year.
The state estimates that many of its low-income households are in “fuel poverty”— paying at least 15 percent of their incomes for utilities. The average family in the program saves $437 a year in energy bills, according to the Department of Energy.
Homeowners and renters earning up to 60 percent of the state’s median income – about $49,500 for a family of four —are eligible for the program, which is free for them. At least 50 percent of apartment residents must meet the income requirements for their building to qualify and landlord usually must pay at least 25 percent of the costs. Brooklyn has the largest share of eligible households in the state. More than 377,800 households in the borough qualify for the weatherization program, which is 16 percent of the state’s eligible households, according to New York State Homes and Community Renewal.
The state distributes federal money to local programs for completing weatherization services based partly on the number of income-eligible people in their service areas. Five groups serve sections of Brooklyn – the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., the Sunset Park Redevelopment Committee Inc., the Community Environmental Center, ODA Community Development Corp. and the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.
Waiting lists are common for these programs, which are first come, first served, except for in emergency situations. Waits can range from a few months to a couple of years. Landlord Jason Blair’s 54-unit apartment building at 312 E. 21st St. had been on the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council’s waiting list, which includes about 30 apartments, for about six months.
Among the apartment’s improvements are energy efficient electrical systems and improved insulation in the roof and on hot water pipes. A subcontractor working for the council also replaced the 30-year-old boiler with a more efficient one that will run only when needed, instead of wasting energy by operating constantly.
That translates into better relations between Blair and the building’s energy bills. “I don’t often look forward to them,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to them now.”
His building is undergoing the final touches in improvements meant to lower energy costs for him and his tenants and make conditions in the apartments more comfortable. “It’s a win-win,” Blair said.
As with every building weatherization programs service, energy auditors determined the improvements that would result in the most savings. Because of limited funding, contractors start with the most cost-saving measures and work their way down a list until the allotted money runs out. The size of a building and the amount of work needed determines how long the weatherization process will take.
And everything comes back to the amount of money that is available. “We’re very concerned that funding is being cut at the federal level,” said Alexis Greene, public relations director at Community Environmental Center, which services parts of Brooklyn and Queens. “Every agency expects that it’s going to be lower than it’s been in the past, which means fewer homes that can be provided with weatherization.”
Brooklyn’s weatherization programs continue to accept applications:
ODA Community Development Corp., firstname.lastname@example.org