Stimulus Funds Helping Houston Firm Give Out Free Home Fixes

Photo courtesy Sheltering Arms
People are sometimes suspicious when one of Scott Pool's inspectors calls. The offer -- to weatherize one's house for free -- sounds too good to be true.
"We have to convince them that, really and truly, nobody's going to charge them," says Pool, the weatherization director at Sheltering Arms Senior Services, a multi-faceted non-profit in Houston. "People have to be assured that there's no scam involved."
Weatherization means caulking, insulating or otherwise fixing up a home to make its energy consumption more efficient. It can save hundreds of dollars on annual utility bills. Sheltering Arms focuses on the elderly but targets poor households in general. Its weatherization program had a budget of $1.4 million in 2008. It has been servicing between 250 and 300 homes a year.
Pool expects those numbers to soon jump ten-fold.
Houston's weatherization efforts recently drew national attention (via an article in Thursday's Wall Street Journal) for the incoming boon of stimulus money heading this way. Sheltering Arms and a similar service run by the city will each receive about $22 million over the next two years pegged specifically for weatherization. They will be able to service families ranging to 200 percent of the poverty line, up from 125 percent.

Sheltering Arms's weatherization budget had already jumped from $1.5 to $5.1 million this year thanks to an increase Texas's share of the national budget.
After the initial phone call, inspectors arrive at a home with a futuristic contraption used to administer the "blower-door" test. A large flap with a fan and a zipper is attached to the frame of the front door to, in essence, try and suck the air out of the house. This allows inspectors to determine how much energy leaks out of the house, and from where.
Next comes a cost-benefit analysis of what, if anything, to do. Things such as improperly knocked-down interior walls might make a house beyond helping, Pool says. But Sheltering Arms differs from the city service in that it can also tap unrestricted, non-government funds from private donors to undertake costlier home-improvement efforts such as roof and foundation repairs that make weatherization worthwhile in the first place.
Sheltering Arms needs to make sure its efforts pay off, because it only gets one shot, according to Lynne Cook, its vice president of housing and energy management. Currently, houses that were weatherized as far back as 1994 can't be revisited.
"We can caulk all we want, and do the windows all we want, but if the roof isn't fixed we'll never get a house energy efficient," Cook says.
After its energy audit, Sheltering Arms contracts out the rest of the work. Its pool of contractors will swell from four to 14 once the stimulus funds hit, likely this fall.
While thrilled about all the new money, Pool acknowledges that putting them to use will involve considerable effort. He expects to add about five people to his current staff of 15, including four new inspectors. Hopefully, people will be ready for their calls.

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Mike Giglio
Contact: Mike Giglio