EnergyFIT Philly Gentrification Without Displacement

January 24, 2017
Spring 2017
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Weatherization

Low income weatherization providers nationally face a dilemma. Too often, the highest-use households do not qualify for existing programs, because their homes need extensive repairs that must be done before the roof can be insulated or the home can be air sealed. Thus low-income households, who need energy conservation the most, are often turned away. The Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, had been rejecting too many low-income households for too long, and finally decided to develop an innovative solution to this problem—a solution capable of producing a deep energy retrofit, and a healthy home.

Philadelphia, the city of row homes, is losing ground in the battle to preserve its low-income housing stock. Roof leaks and other deteriorating conditions have plagued the city’s housing efforts for decades. Of its 331,000 row homes, 38% are owned by low-income households. Fully 30% of low income owner occupied homes are “generational”, that is they have been inherited. Many of these homes have been held in low income hands for generations. Due to its age and the fact that much of the low-income housing stock has been poorly maintained, low-income Philadelphians have a very high energy burden, paying 25–40% of their income for gas, electricity, and water. This has led to high rates of utility delinquency and termination. Every year at least 60,000 households lose their gas, electricity, and/or water service for nonpayment. In recent years, terminations have been steadily rising and reconnections have been falling.

Darlene Pope, Block Captain extraordinaire for the 1200 block of W. Seltzer, one of Philly’s coolest blocks. (ECA)

Volunteers from Roof Coating Manufacturers Association (RCMA) volunteering their time to coat white roofs. (ECA)

With funding provided by the Oak Foundation, the City of Philadelphia, TD Bank, and NBC 10, and leveraged weatherization funding from the Weatherization Assistance Program and local utilities, ECA launched EnergyFIT Philly to demonstrate an innovative approach to the prevention of homelessness. It seeks to preserve and stabilize affordable housing that is currently ineligible for other energy conservation programs. The project addresses the physical deterioration of existing affordable housing. This is a growing problem, one that prevents up to 55% of high-energy-use households in Philadelphia from having their homes weatherized, and that leads to the irrevocable deterioration of the home. The project aims to reverse the downward slide of low-income neighborhoods that have concentrations of homes in poor condition.

EnergyFIT Philly is dramatically cutting energy costs, increasing durability, and improving health and safety in the homes of high users by repairing and then air sealing, insulating and weatherizing these homes using open-cell spray foam, high-efficiency HVAC equipment, advanced diagnostic techniques, and other innovative materials and approaches. The program brings energy conservation, health and safety treatments, education, and bill payment assistance services together with home repair in order to reduce low-income homeowners’ maintenance and operating costs. This enables them to remain in their homes and build equity as the neighborhood steadily increases in value.

Gentrification Without Displacement

Working through EnergyFIT Philly, ECA has renovated 67 homes thus far, partnering with our Neighborhood Energy Centers to conduct outreach, intake, and education. This section describes the process.

Initial Assessment

We start with a whole-house inspection, combined with a Home Energy Professional energy audit and a Healthy Homes Assessment. This gives us a detailed scope of work and a pretreatment baseline. Because these homes are in a state of advanced deterioration, they pose many health and safety hazards. These can include high carbon monoxide (CO) levels, gas leaks, high relative humidity (RH), mold, mildew, lead paint, unsafe electrical wiring, structural weakness, and all manner of pests, which thrive in moist conditions. Hobo data loggers, which measure indoor humidity and temperature, are installed to ensure that as we tighten the home, these problems are corrected. Many of these homes have very high RH. This can be caused by bulk moisture from roof leaks, cracks in the masonry or in the foundation, diffusion through masonry, dirt basements, high water tables, basements filled with damp old “personal storage,” and so on. This high RH often encourages the growth of mold as well. Whenever RH exceeds healthy levels, we work to eliminate the source of bulk moisture, which usually requires a range of measures.

In-Home Treatments

All 67 homes received extensive repairs. These included new roofs; repairs to the masonry, electrical, and plumbing systems; repairs to the carpentry and drywall; and related repairs. All homes also received extensive energy efficiency improvements. These included air sealing, insulation, heating-system repair or replacement, conversion from heating oil to high-efficiency gas heat, duct sealing, white roof coating, programmable thermostats, self-help education, and other treatments that will make the homes warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Energy Savings

These repairs resulted in a 55% average reduction in air infiltration. Based on this reduction, and on our internal evaluation of gas utility data, ECA finds that natural- gas savings are currently averaging 35.5% for these households. This means savings of $500 to $3,500 per year for years to come for each of these households. Highest savings accrue to those who switched from heating oil to high-efficiency natural gas.

One of the most significant outcomes of the project is that it has helped low-income homeowners to remain in their homes and not be displaced by gentrification. During the past ten years, Philadelphia has experienced a building boom that started in Center City but has spread to many neighborhoods and shows no signs of abating. If the deterioration of existing row homes can be reversed and these homes made highly energy efficient, durable, and safe, they will certainly rise in value, giving these low-income homeowners a secure asset to carry them through rough times ahead.

Low income tenants are far more likely to lose their homes due to rising property values and rentals in gentrifying neighborhoods than low income homeowners. Philadelphia is increasingly focused on affordable housing preservation as a strategy to prevent displacement through gentrification. Increasing energy efficiency to drive down operating costs and enable low income homeowners to remain in their homes while their neighborhoods gradually improve will retain the racial, ethnic and income diversity of these communities.

Neighborhood Selection

ECA selects the homes to be renovated through an annual Coolest Block contest. The winning block will transform into a Cool Block in two ways: figuratively, by transforming into a block of highly efficient, durable and healthy homes, and literally, by converting their roofs from underinsulated black asphalt into super insulated, highly reflective cool roofs through white roof coating. Winners of this contest are blocks with high concentrations of low-income homeowners, living in two and three-story row homes in very poor condition. Many of these blocks have one or two long term vacant properties on the block, and typically are located in neighborhoods experiencing serious drug and violent crime activity.

Results to Date

The results of this project to date include reduced energy costs and increased durability, health, and safety.

Dramatic Reduction in Energy Costs

For years, ECA has been disappointed by the lackluster energy savings achieved by air sealing and insulating row home attic cavities. While engineering estimates predict that we should be getting 18–20% savings with the standard-protocol of air sealing and blown cellulose, all of the contractors, including ECA, have never gotten more than 10 to 12%.

EnergyFIT Philly lets us innovate with new materials and procedures. Given the difficulty of air sealing from inside the attic cavity—especially since these low- slope roofs are often only 6 inches deep in the rear—and given the frequency of knob-and-tube wiring in the cavity, we reasoned that exterior spray foam (SPF) would give us better results.

So in Phase 1, with our first Energy FIT Philly neighborhood, we innovated with exterior

closed-cell spray foam (SPF) cool-roof systems, on 14 row homes, all of which required a tear-off of all old roofing material. Most also required masonry repair to chimneys and parapets, and many also required the replacement of wood trim. While closed-cell spray foam provided better air sealing results than blown-in cellulose, the results were still disappointing, and difficult to justify, given the cost.

In one home we replaced the roof with modified bitumen, and insulated with open-cell spray foam inside the attic cavity. In this home, the blower door reduction from the attic cavity alone was a significant 54%. This result was so encouraging that we decided to switch from closed-cell to open-cell foam for Phase 2.

In Phase 2, we replaced 28 roofs, insulating with open-cell spray foam inside the cavity and installing a new modified-bitumen roof, which was coated with a highly reflective cool-roof coating. This combination has several advantages.

  • It saves more energy and results in better air sealing, more than doubling our air leakage reduction when compared to cellulose.
  • It costs less than exterior foam (SPF): $7,500, including knob and tube mitigation, versus $12,000 for the SPF insulation and new roofing system. In fact, open cell foam is comparable to cellulose in price.
  • It is easier and less expensive to maintain due to the fact that a highly reflective cool roof coating is applied to the modified bitumen roof once the roof cures. The cool roof coating extends the life of the roof by ten years, and in fact, if properly recoated every eight to ten years, the roof may never need to be replaced again! For low income homeowners, there are few home maintenance home runs. Cool roof coatings are one of them.

The results of Phase 2 are described below and summarized in Table 1. Average air leakage reduction per house = 3,406 (CFM50) and the average % reduction = 45%. Our analysis of utility billing data finds that gas savings are 35.5% thus far and electricity savings are 22%. While the number of homes is still quite small, these results are very encouraging. Perhaps most surprising, is that when bundled together with air sealing, insulation and other core measures, row home roof replacement can be cost effective in the home of a very high user.



Increased Durability, Health, and Safety

We replaced inefficient heating systems in a number of homes. In several cases, we installed heating systems in homes that had not had working central heating for many years. In every case, we installed high-efficiency systems. In two homes, we replaced inefficient worn-out fuel oil heaters with high-efficiency condensing gas heating systems. Not only does this save the residents at least $2,500 a year on their heating bill, but it cuts carbon emissions by more than 33%.

We replaced refrigerators when cost effective, relamped with compact fluorescents, and undertook other measures that increased the homes’ durability, health, and safety.

Masonry, electrical, plumbing, and structural repairs. We undertook a variety of interior and exterior repairs. These repairs were designed to restore the integrity of the building shell, remove unnecessary chimneys, prevent leaks, eliminate safety hazards, restore proper drainage, eliminate code violations, and replace knob-and-tube wiring.

Reduction in RH levels. In all homes with high RH levels (>65%), we provided treatments to bring RH down to healthy levels (<45%). These treatments resolved the sources of bulk moisture penetration—sealing the dirt floor in the basement, coating the walls in the basement with two layers of heavy-duty sealant, and venting dryers. In one case, we also engaged the services of a mold specialist who set up high-powered fans to dry out the basement by exhausting all the moist air. Unfortunately, this only worked for 48 hours, after which RH levels climbed back into the unhealthy range. We found that Humidivents were only marginally effective.

Mold mitigation was accomplished in a number of homes by eliminating the source of moisture, usually a long-standing roof leak; clearing old, unwanted items out of the damp basement; reducing RH; and replacing moldy building materials such as drywall.

Integrated pest management. Air sealing attics and basements eliminates pathways through which pests can enter homes. In several homes, basement air sealing identified and eliminated pathways where mice and rats were getting in. Integrated pest management is essential to maintaining a healthy home. In EnergyFIT, we teach the occupants to eliminate most infestations. However, we had one extreme case involving bedbugs, fleas, cockroaches, mice, and rats, which was so advanced that it required a professional pest audit and a skilled specialist to remediate. This home also had a raccoon infestation in the attic, which had to be resolved before we could insulate.

Volunteers from Roof Coating Manufacturers Association (RCMA) volunteering their time to coat white roofs. (ECA)

Lessons Learned to Date

Nationally, there is a real conversation underway about Healthy Homes and the value of combining energy efficiency and health and safety interventions. ECA believes that the low income homes being rejected for weatherization due to advanced deterioration, are excellent candidates for Healthy Homes interventions and that there must be a national response through the Weatherization Assistance Program to develop a Weatherization plus Health approach. This effort can yield deep energy savings as well as reduction in health care costs. ECA has learned several important lessons thus far: First, new technologies can increase energy savings and should be integrated more rapidly into low-income weatherization programs. Open-cell foam is cost competitive with cellulose and produces twice the energy savings (see Table 2). Open-cell foam insulation with a modified-bitumen roof costs two-thirds as much as, and saves 25% more than, the SPF roof. For this reason, ECA will be using open-cell foam with a modified-bitumen roof going forward in EnergyFIT Philly.

Second, reducing high RH to healthy levels requires the elimination of all bulk moisture penetrations. This is essential to eliminating mold and mildew in the home. As climate change proceeds, and parts of the country, including the Mid-Atlantic, get hotter and wetter, damp basements and water damage are becoming more common.

Third, given the frequency of unsafe and unhealthy conditions in the homes of low-income high users, ECA is working to develop an interface between building science and medical science to deliver a healthy homes solution in the context of weatherization programs.

Fourth, targeting entire blocks by conducting a citywide contest is an excellent way to identify need, and unify and motivate the residents to organize and help themselves. This method reduces administrative, program, and transaction costs while increasing the value and longevity of the results. ECA would like to quantify the benefits of the contest in the next phase of EnergyFIT Philly.

Higher Home Value, Lower Operating Costs

A 2015 report published by Entergy Corporation found that investments in energy efficiency for low-income homes are especially cost-effective, returning at least $7 to society for every $1 invested. We saw this borne out in real gains for the low-income homeowners in our target areas.

learn more

Contact the author at

Oppenheim, Jerrold, and Theo MacGregor. “Energy Efficiency Equals Economic Development”. Entergy Corporation, 2008.

For a copy this report, contact JerroldOpp@

ECA’s experience leads us to conclude that stabilizing low-income homeowners in gentrifying areas is a cost-effective, long-term way to create vibrant, sustainable cities and communities. The collaboration of strong community partners like ECA’s Neighborhood Energy Centers, the block captains, the Roof Coating Manufacturers Association, Habitat for Humanity, and Rebuilding Together was critical to the success of this project. Most importantly, motivating the homeowners individually and collectively to invest in their own homes and in their block, to clean up alleys and abandoned lots, and to watch out for one another has contributed immeasurably to the quality of life on their block, in their neighborhood, and in the city. They have helped to build cohesion, a sense of moving forward, and enthusiasm about what the future can hold.

Liz Robinson is the Executive Director of the Energy Coordinating Agency, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.

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