Demanding Weatherization and Housing Retrofits

Ideas and Issues
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June 6, 2021

New Orleans

Weatherization is old news in the United States. Such programs, though often woefully small, have been a staple of community action anti-poverty programs since the 1960s. Dilapidated and aging housing stock in lower income neighborhoods often meant atrociously high heating bills throughout the country. Shutoffs were common and emergency assistance for utility payments is capped and not an entitlement so often gone in the first storm surge. Weatherization meant lower bills and more habitable housing for lower income families who qualified under the guidelines, but that also meant that it worked for homeowners, better than tenants, and certainly not for landlords. The point was saving money for the poor and keeping the bills from sucking up a quarter of their monthly income or more.

Fast forward to today and weatherization is still a program in some places and still a legacy employment and service program for some of the remaining community action agencies whose history dates back to the War on Poverty. The modern driver of such programs is climate change and, though the issue is still under the radar for the most part in the United States, demands for such housing rehabilitation or retrofits, as they are called in Europe, is driving new, powerful campaigns that unite tenants’ unions and environmentalists in effective coalitions.

ACORN’s affiliate in France, the Alliance Citoyenne, has led perhaps the most effective campaign in Europe for retrofits as reported in a coming issue of Social Policy written by their national head organizer, Adrien Roux. He notes that the housing sector produces 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions in France, making it a headline issue for more than just our low-and-moderate income tenants. There is a housing classification system in France that rates houses from A (perfect insulation) to G (horrible insulation).  Public or social housing with F and G ratings has led the way in doing retrofits with only about 7% still in these categories, but private housing is at 19%.ACORN and our allies won a national victory in 2020 when under pressure the government made retrofits mandatory.

Unfortunately, they did not fast track the obligation, but gave landlords until 2028 to achieve full compliance, which would cost lower income families an average of 10,000 euros in excess utility charges by that date. Worse, the housing minister tried to change the classification system to pretend that units with electric heating were exempt from retrofits. We joined with environmentalists, including Greenpeace, that included our leaders speaking to marches of tens of thousands, that finally succeeded in forcing the government to return to the standards, and in fact add another 800,000 units that qualified for mandatory retrofits.  Clearly, the campaign is still not over, and actions continue demanding a faster timetable.

ACORN Canada had been involved in a similar fight, but a victory was snatched away when Ontario Premier Rob Ford came into office and canceled the expenditure. The Alliance ACORN has found tenants facing the same issues in Belgium and the Netherlands.  ACORN’s affiliate in Scotland, Living Rent, is ready to join with other affiliates and allies at the COP 26 meetings in Edinburgh in the fall of this year to make this an even more central global issue. These campaigns are a perfect marriage of resources for people, where every penny counts, and everyone who understands that the climate crisis needs to be fought on every front. France has proven that retrofits can be won, now more campaigns need to force other countries to follow.