(Photo: Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia)
A new bill from first-term state Senator Nikil Saval could make an important difference in breaking down barriers for Pennsylvania residents to be able to access the different types of home repair funding on offer from federal, state, and local governments.
Senator Saval’s Whole-Home Repair bill, whose co-sponsorship memo was introduced this week, would provide flexible Basic Systems Repair funding to PA counties, and essentially try to create a statewide version of the Philadelphia Energy Authority’s Built to Last program from local housing agencies that helps coordinate applications to the multiple available funds, and plug policy gaps that have left otherwise-eligible people unable to access funding.
One issue the bill tries to solve is how federal rules and regulations constrain the scope of repairs that can be supported with Department of Energy funds that are administered by state and local governments. Through the DOE-funded Weatherization Assistance Program, for example, local governments can carry out residential improvements designed to improve energy efficiency by sealing up a property’s building envelope. The WAP funds can be used for things like caulking windows and other types of insulation, but not for repairing a home’s basic systems.
Leaky roofs, outdated electrical systems, and other health and safety problems caused by deferred maintenance cannot be supported with WAP funds. Additionally, what housing practitioners have learned the hard way is that sealing homes without addressing water leaks leads directly to mold issues that make people sick, so they no longer perform the other weatherization work people may be eligible for in these cases.
Homeowners seeking to weatherize their homes who also have other basic systems repair needs are placed onto a deferral waitlist. Some other funds like Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) are sometimes used to address deferrals, but that funding is very limited. Due to these constraints, WAP administrators are often unable to assist homeowners with deferred maintenance issues.
Philadelphia and some other PA municipalities who have access to more flexible Basic Systems Repair dollars from federal Community Development Block Grants and other local funding sources do a better job of deploying these funds to plug the gaps, and increase eligibility for these other funding sources, but there isn’t enough money to go around to meet all the need that’s out there. And zooming out to the whole state, access to this kind of flexible funding to plug the policy gaps is a lot spottier, hence the need for a new pot of flexible state funding for home system repairs.
Another problem the bill tries to solve is that the preponderance of home repair programs currently available from different layers of government aren’t all accessible in one place, and they mostly require paper applications. With everything living on paper, applications can’t easily be coordinated so that someone who qualifies for one program could at the same time discover that they qualify for other programs too. The bill would help kickstart the process of getting to a digital universal application, but recognizing this is not going to happen immediately, it would also provide shorter-term solutions in the form of technical assistance funding to hire more case managers to help coordinate applications. It would also address some of the training and retention issues that have made it difficult to hire and retain case managers and other critical administrative staff who keep the wheels on these unwieldy funding vehicles.
Speaking with city staff recently about opportunities in the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill related to building energy efficiency upgrades, the idea of a one-stop universal application for home repairs and energy efficiency upgrades is also a high-priority project for people in city government, so this should also be seen as a way to help ensure that Philadelphians are able to get a competitive share of the new federal funding that will be available. A digital application portal like this is something that allegedly could be funded by the infrastructure bill too.
All of this would ultimately help ensure that Pennsylvania residents, particularly in places like Philadelphia and other urban-ish parts of the state with older housing stock, are able to access more of the funding that has been allocated by federal and state government for home repairs and energy efficiency upgrades, but that may be currently off-limits due to inflexible program design.
Read the co-sponsorship memo for more details, and consider contacting your state elected officials to make sure it’s on their radar.