Momentum in the Healthy-Homes Movement

Integrating Energy Efficiency with Healthy-Home Upgrades

August 08, 2016
Fall 2016
This online-only article is a supplement to the Fall 2016 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Healthy Homes

Mae Conway, a resident of Oakland Heights affordable-housing apartments in Kansas City, Missouri, had struggled with poor respiratory health for years. She used an oxygen tank, a breathing machine, and a sleep apnea machine, all of which require a lot of electricity. Over the years, Oakland Heights had fallen into disrepair and had become increasingly energy inefficient. “I live on a fixed income,” says Conway. “When the rooms were drafty and my heating and cooling bills were high, I worried that I couldn’t keep my machines running.” Conway used to keep the lights and television turned off so she could afford to pay for the electricity she needed to treat her respiratory problems.

Conway is not alone. Nearly half of this country’s most affordable rental homes were built more than 50 years ago. Many of these aging buildings are not energy efficient. This leads to higher bills and tough choices for residents and owners alike.


In addition to wasting energy, dilapidated and drafty rental units often have moisture and mold contamination and may be infested with dust mites and other pests, all of which can trigger asthma episodes. Further, exposure to deteriorated lead paint and dust presents a risk to millions of Americans—particularly low-income families—who live in housing built before 1978. Lead poisoning is associated with learning and behavior problems in children, and high blood pressure in adults.  

Demand is growing for energy auditors, home inspectors, and contractors with the skills necessary to assess and fix these and other home-based health hazards. Driven by key nonprofit organizations and alliances of advocacy groups, a national movement to integrate healthy-home interventions with energy efficiency and weatherization retrofits is gaining traction and attracting resources and funding across the country.

A Collaborative Approach

One such reformer is the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), a national nonprofit dedicated to breaking the link between unhealthy housing and unhealthy families. Since 2010, GHHI stand-alone projects, and HUD-funded programs that were influenced by GHHI, have rehabilitated more than 509,000 homes to a comprehensive energy-efficient, healthy, and safe standard. GHHI works with local partners in 25 cities, counties, and states to replace stand-alone programs with a comprehensive strategy to improve health, economic, and social outcomes for children, families, and seniors.

The GHHI model’s success comes from breaking down structural barriers found in many jurisdictions. Residents needing services to address substandard housing can face an incomprehensible bureaucratic labyrinth of agencies, with little interagency coordination. The system itself, intended to solve problems, may instead make it more difficult to solve them. The GHHI model braids together separate but related programs and funding, and leverages federal, state, local, and philanthropic resources to create healthy, lead-safe, and energy-efficient homes across the United States.

"By improving energy efficiency and addressing environmental health factors that exacerbate asthma, and by fixing hazards like lead paint, we lower families’ monthly bills, reduce school absences, increase a parent's ability to get to work, and ultimately help stabilize communities,” says GHHI President and CEO Ruth Ann Norton. “These investments in proven healthy, safe, and energy-efficient housing interventions simply work.” 

Norton notes that GHHI's housing interventions have lowered asthma-related hospitalizations by more than 65% since their inception, while improving school attendance by 62%.

Another innovative group that works to improve multifamily housing is the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) initiative. Launched as a partnership among the National Housing Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Energy Foundation, and Elevate Energy, and in collaboration with many national groups like GHHI, EEFA works to link the energy and housing sectors together, to bring the benefits of energy efficiency to millions of low-income families.

The Scope of the Problem

According to the Energy Information Administration, there are approximately 28.1 million multifamily buildings in the United States. These buildings represent roughly a quarter of all homes, and use 20% of the energy consumed by all residential buildings. Despite its market share, multifamily housing is far less likely to have efficiency measures installed than any other type of housing. Currently, the share of utility energy efficiency funds spent on the multifamily sector falls well below the multifamily share of the housing market in metropolitan areas nationwide.

To solve this problem, EEFA is asking utilities in all 50 states to take action and retrofit affordable housing. Retrofitting saves energy, creates energy-saving jobs, improves residents’ health, gives residents more disposable income, and keeps housing affordable for generations to come.

Over the last 18 months, EEFA has been working with state and local groups in 12 states to ensure that the affordable-housing sector receives a fair share of utility funding, and that energy efficiency funding is tailored to the affordable multifamily sector in California, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

“From our collaborative experience, we know that obstacles preventing utility-sponsored investments in multifamily affordable housing can be overcome when housing, utility, and environmental and health sectors collaborate,” says National Housing Trust Executive Director Michael Bodaken. “In the states where we are engaged, utilities have committed $54 million in new utility funding targeted to the multifamily affordable- housing sector, and successful models have been created or improved to better serve the sector.”

In Maryland, EEFA, along with strong partners like GHHI, recently organized 23 groups as the Maryland Energy Efficiency Advocates. This organization works to encourage the state public service commission to lead Maryland to a more energy-efficient future. To date it has secured $10 million in additional funding for the Multifamily Energy Efficiency and Housing Affordability program (MEEHA).

MEEHA was developed as a partnership among the Maryland Energy Administration and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and is now funded by the state’s investor-owned utilities. MEEHA provides energy audits, energy efficiency retrofits, and renewable-energy improvements to citizens. DHCD targets MEEHA funding to multifamily projects already being considered for housing resources from DHCD, to streamline the process and allow for more comprehensive retrofits.

learn more

Read more about GHHI. Learn more about EEFA.

Measured Success

Back in Kansas City, Mae Conway’s plight highlights the important link between energy-efficient, affordable homes and residents’ health. Making housing more energy efficient gets us one step closer to making sure that residents like Conway can breathe easily without having to make impossible choices between staying healthy and paying their utility bills.

Fortunately, in 2010, Conway’s worries were put to rest. Blue Hills Community Services took over the property and partnered as co-developer with McCormack Baron Salazar to install energy-efficient appliances, windows, and insulation. This saves residents $30–40 a month on utility bills and makes it easier for Conway to take care of herself. “Now my family can be comfortable and I can be healthy. I even have some money left over after covering utilities. That helps me breathe easier, too,” says Conway.

Dana Bartolomei is a housing and energy efficiency policy associate at the National Housing Trust. Michael Bodaken is the executive director of the National Housing Trust. Leslie Zarker contributed to this article.


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