Whole-Home Repairs: Protecting Pennsylvanians

By Winn Costantini

Posted May 27, 2022

 

Senator Nikil Saval introduced the Whole-Home Repairs Act (Senate Bill 1135) in the Pennsylvania Senate in March 2022 as a bipartisan bill that aims to “create a one-stop shop for home repairs and weatherization, while building our workforce and creating family-sustaining jobs in a growing field.” This Act recognizes that equitable green building initiatives in the residential sector must address the urgent issues of utility burden, home health hazards, housing disrepair, and displacement, as well as ensure that affected communities benefit economically from these initiatives through accessible workforce development. 

Finding solutions to these issues in Pennsylvania presents unique challenges: Pennsylvania’s housing stock is some of the oldest in the country, with the majority of homes built before 1970. According to a recent poll by Data for Progress and People’s Action, about 1 in 4 Pennsylvania voters across party lines say that their homes are in need of critical repairs. However, nearly half of those polled said that they would struggle to pay for critical repairs such as leaky roofs, failing heating and cooling systems, and exposed wiring. 

This aging housing stock also contributes to Pennsylvanian’s utility burden. This poll also found that nearly 1 in 3 Pennsylvania voters have unaffordable utility bills. While this is an issue across both urban and rural regions, low-income households in Philadelphia are among the most burdened by energy bills in the country. The American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy defines an energy burdened household as one that spends over 6% of their income on energy bills and a severely energy burdened household as one that spends over 10%. Using this measure, as of 2020, over a quarter of Philadelphians were energy burdened and 14% were severely energy burdened. Low-income households and people of color are also disproportionately energy burdened, with 39% of Black households and 45% of Hispanic households experiencing energy burdens in Philadelphia. 

Higher energy bills mean that Pennsylvanians have less to invest in the repairs and weatherization needed to lower this burden and have less to spend on rent and mortgages, creating a vicious cycle that can end in foreclosure and eviction. Housing repairs and weatherization are also a matter of public health – proper air sealing and insulation materials help prevent condensation that can otherwise lead to rot, mold, and mildew, contributing to asthma and other chronic illnesses. Finally, repaired and weatherized homes are prepared to withstand the changing climate and impacts of extreme weather. With effective and efficient insulation, air barriers, solar heat gain, glazing, and fenestration, homes are better able to maintain indoor temperatures, including passive survivability in the event of a power outage.   

Current efforts to address these issues have fallen short due to both lack of funding as well as lack of accessibility and coordination of existing resources. Homeowners in need of repairs are often unable to access weatherization services, such as the federally-funded Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), until they have addressed often expensive issues such as mold, asbestos, and roof damage. According to Steve Luxton from the Energy Coordinating Agency, 55-65% of those who apply for WAP assistance in Philadelphia are denied due to structural issues. While studies of Philadelphia’s Basic Systems Repair Program have found that the program can significantly reduce crime rates in neighborhoods where the program is implemented, many homeowners are also unable to access funding for these repairs due to the years-long waiting list for the program. The Philadelphia Energy Authority is working to address these coordination issues through their Built to Last program, which is currently running a 50-home pilot to coordinate low-income homeowners’ access to and delivery of services including home repair and safety, utility assistance, legal assistance, health and housing counseling, energy efficiency, and electrification and solar when possible. However, Built to Last is in need of significantly more funding to meet the needs of the over 60,000 low-income homeowners in Philadelphia. Moreover, both the Basic System Repair Program and Built to Last do not provide adequate solutions for renters, as landlords are not incentivized to provide repairs and weatherization without increasing rental prices and therefore exacerbating the prevalence of evictions and displacement. 

The Whole-Home Repairs Act is a unique legislative solution to the financial, logistical, and technical barriers to making home repair and weatherization accessible in Pennsylvania. The Act would create the Whole-Home Repairs Fund, which would partially draw from the current state budget surplus. The Fund would be used to provide direct funding for repairs; funding for programs that provide coordination and technical assistance to people seeking repairs and weatherization; and resources to increase retention in home repair and weatherization training programs. 

First, the Fund would provide $50,000 grants for homeowners, as well as loans to small landlords renting affordable units, to address habitability concerns, improve energy and/or water efficiency, and, where requested, make units accessible to disabled people. This Act proposes a novel solution to equitably repairing rental units through these small landlord loans, which would come with affordability restrictions to ensure that the cost of repairs and upgrade in energy efficiency are not passed on to tenants. These loans will be forgiven if (1) landlords offer to extend the lease existing at the time of repairs by three years, (2) annual increases in monthly rent have not exceeded 3% or the unit has been occupied by a tenant participating in the Housing Choice Voucher Program for at least 15 years, (3) the landlord has not committed any property violations without taking substantial steps to correct the violation for at least 15 years, and (4) the landlord has maintained ownership of the unit for at least 15 years.

The Act would also support the improved coordination and accessibility of existing home repair programs. Grants from the Whole-Home Repairs Fund would support efforts to provide technical assistance and case management services for homeowners, renters, and small landlords; create universal application processes and coordinate waitlists across existing programs; and provide referrals to legal aid and community-based social services. Finally, the Fund would support workforce development training programs in home repair and weatherization fields through funding cash stipends for trainees, as well as covering costs related to the design and implementation of pre-apprenticeship, apprenticeship and publicly-funding on-the-job training programs. 

This “first-of-its-kind legislative fix” has garnered bipartisan support through appealing to Republicans’ interest in addressing the state-wide issue of housing blight. Supporters include Sen. Pat Browne (R-Chester) and Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill), the chairs of the state appropriations committee and state government committee respectively. The bipartisan nature of the bill was further demonstrated by the poll by Data for Progress and People’s Action, which showed that 76% of Pennsylvania votes support the Whole-Home Repairs Act, with a majority of voters expressing that they either “strong support” or “somewhat support” the bill among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans as well as among urban, suburban, and rural voters. 

Green Building United, along with over 50 other organizations across Pennsylvania, supports the Whole-Home Repairs Act and we urge the Pennsylvania General Assembly to urgently pass Senate Bill 1135. To learn more and declare your support for the Act, click here

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