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The price of "green" home improvement

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jackiewheeler | Feb 23, 2011 10:53 AM

Many Arizonans like to talk big about resenting federal intrusion and giveaways, but one recent giveaway appears to have been quite popular. While definitive statistics on installations in the Phoenix area are unavailable, an observer will certainly notice a good number of homes -- especially in aging mid-century neighborhoods like mine -- sporting efficient new dual-pane vinyl windows. It could be simply a coincidence that such improvements corresponded with the period when the federal Residential Energy Efficiency Tax Credit (part of the Recovery Act) was available, of course. Some homeowners may not have known about the credit, or decided not to take it out of principle, or what have you. Still, one prominent local company claims to have installed “well over 50,000 windows in the last three years.” The same company’s website refers nostalgically to the now-expired credit, offering similar savings to new customers, so I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume the program was a bang-up success, at least for them.

Clearly even in a crippling recession some Westerners can justify modest “green” improvements, if the price and energy efficient windowspotential benefit is right. However, what about the increasing ranks of jobless and poor citizens? Few own their own homes, and those who rent are unlikely to have many choices -- let alone efficient green choices -- of housing. I recently heard from a neighbor that, while the rent for his home is within his very limited budget, the utilities in hot and cold months can cost nearly as much as the rent itself. The reason? The house, a rather run-down 1950s-era Ranch, has only a few shreds of ancient insulation in the attic and warped, single-pane casement windows. The landlord claims he cannot afford to make improvements to the property and still keep the rent low. A 2005 survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association found that high utility costs, due in part to substandard home weatherization and aging infrastructure, are a serious and persistent problem nationwide for those in low income households. This misery will only be exacerbated by the effects of climate change, which is somewhat ironic in that decreasing residential energy consumption and waste are widely believed to be factors in potentially lessening the effects of that change.

While substandard housing will likely never be completely eradicated, unfortunately, there are some promising developments on the horizon for low-income citizens. Everyone has heard about Habitat for Humanity, the organization that helps low-income families finance and build homes. Not only are these homes affordable, they are efficient, now meeting Energy Star standards, according to the organization’s website. Another non-profit organization, Enterprise Community Partners, provides resources and establishes criteria for affordable green multi- and single-family housing, both new and rehabbed. They have sponsored projects across the country; in the West, they can be found in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana.

It’s good to know that “going green” is increasingly not reserved for the custom-homes crowd. With both government and non-governmental organizations lending a hand, the rest of us, and our poorest neighbors, may be able to chip in a bit and help the earth right where we live.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Photo of energy efficient windows courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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