Taking Weatherization to Native Americans in Washington State

Tribal Weatherization is a long road, literally and figuratively. Yes, we can get there from here.

January 02, 2013
January/February 2013
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Weatherization

The Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce) recognizes the need to provide weatherization service to Native Americans in equitable proportions based on the census. Management and staff have made a concerted effort to support and encourage service delivery through the established network. In December 2006, Steve Payne, managing director of the Housing Improvements and Preservation (HIP) Unit, stepped outside the box and made a profound commitment that would change the face of weatherization service delivery to Native American households in Washington. Steve committed a full-time employee position to explore and implement service delivery options. Steve asked me to consider leading the Tribal Weatherization Project. I accepted and was launched on a journey that is often challenging, but ever rewarding.

Andrew Etue of the Commerce Compliance Team is engaged in a deep discussion with Stephen Tsoodle, Spokane auditor and weatherization manager about policy. (Eunice Herren)

Makah Tribal Housing Department with the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Canada in the background. Coastal weather is hard on the housing stock. (Eunice Herren)

Stephen Tsoodle, Clyde Abrahamson, and Lorrie Ellsworth of the Spokane Indian Housing Authority weatherization program meet with Donn Falconer, Commerce Inspector. (Eunice Herren)

Michael Luke leads an inspection meeting with Yakama Nation Housing Authority weatherization program staff. (Eunice Herren)

Louis Dalos, Makah Tribal Housing Department, tests a gas range for carbon monoxide. Andrew Etue, Commerce Compliance Specialist, provides technical assistance. (Eunice Herren)

I began by visiting each of the 29 tribes and the 25 local weatherization agencies around the state. The face-to-face meetings were very beneficial. Phone calls and teleconferences are okay for dispensing information, but I find they leave something lacking when I really want to develop and sustain a high-quality relationship. I had worked with the local agencies and knew the program managers, yet the initial face-to-face meetings about tribal weatherization added a dimension that would have been absent in a phone call.

Some of the tribes initially expressed surprise that Commerce would come to their reservations to discuss the weatherization needs of their people. One tribal housing authority director suggested that I not bother, since nobody ever came to their small reservation. I made an appointment with him for the following week. It was a good visit. I drove 50 miles beyond somewhere to get there, toured the housing stock, and heard about their needs. I witnessed the river that is changing course and threatening their homes. I came away with a sense that weatherization is just one of their housing needs. He could have told me all of that over the phone or in an e-mail. Being able to see it firsthand made it real, and it reinforced Commerce’s commitment to relationship building.

Providing Services Through the Established Network

Commerce’s highest priority is to increase weatherization services to Native Americans through the established network of weatherization programs, with a focus on serving those living on reservations. Commerce provides a variety of training to the local agencies, including training in cultural understanding, to increase their skills in working with tribal nations and individual Native Americans. I provide technical assistance to the agencies in developing their Native American outreach plans.

My first task was to explore the reasons why services were not reaching low-income Native Americans in equitable proportions with services for the general low-income population. Local agencies receive the majority of weatherization applications through the low-income energy assistance program. This program is federally funded through the state of Washington. Most tribes administer their own low-income energy assistance programs for members of federally recognized tribes and receive the funding directly from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Local agencies never see the tribal energy assistance applications; therefore they don’t receive many tribal member referrals for weatherization.

Two pilot projects are showing success in coordination between the local agency weatherization and tribal energy assistance programs. Okanogan County Community Action Council, in eastern Washington, is coordinating with the Colville Confederated Tribes energy assistance program to serve low-income families on the reservation. South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency, a western-Washington consortium of five tribes, is coordinating with the Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston counties as well as Coastal Community Action Programs. These successes will become models for other tribes and local agencies to build upon.

There are other barriers to service delivery, including a history of deferred relationships; lost relationships as people change positions or move; broken trust; the geographic location of the tribes; and misunderstandings about outreach, to name just a few. The challenges are as numerous and varied as the individual tribes and agencies.

My role is to facilitate dialogue among tribes and local agencies to talk about their needs and opportunities, their history, and the future. I work to help the tribes and agencies understand their common interests and their uniqueness.

Intake and Outreach

Local agencies’ weatherization programs have historically relied on intake to gather applications. Intake is passive. It depends on someone else to make the move and follow through. If no one applies, no action is needed.

Outreach is active. It requires seeking, reaching out, pursuing. Outreach requires a plan. Outreach is a way of thinking, a way of approaching service delivery. It must be built into the program, not added on if convenient. Outreach is not effective when it is being added to an intake-based production program. Commerce is assisting the agencies to develop outreach skills.

Outreach requires response. The local agencies can reach out to the tribes. But outreach requires response from the tribes to be productive. Commerce is assisting the tribes to accept the outreach and recognize how it benefits the people.

Developing Tribal Weatherization Programs

The Weatherization Manual for Managing the Low-Income Weatherization Program guides all Commerce-funded low-income weatherization providers, including tribal programs. The tribal program delivery strategy is unique. The program contracts to serve only enrolled members of federally recognized tribes in accordance with the tribes’ tribal housing policies.

Commerce set up the Tribal Weatherization Group (TWx) to serve as an advisory body for the tribal initiative. The group is composed of representatives from three tribes, three local agencies, and two Commerce staff members. TWx has developed a model for start-up programs, working closely with the tribes to meet the challenges of fitting the weatherization program into their established administration. These challenges have been start-up issues that would be dealt with when establishing a new program with any provider—they are not specifically Indian issues.

The model is expressed in the form of an outline:

Assess the tribe’s capacity to administer the weatherization program.
  • Number of housing units. Are there enough units to sustain a program? Developing a Program is time-consuming and costly. Does the housing need justify a program? Or would it be more reasonable to find other means of providing weatherization?
  • Administration. Which department will administer the program? What is the administrative and programmatic capacity?
  • Management. Will a position be dedicated to managing the program?
  • Crew or contractor. Will the weatherization measures be installed by a crew or by contractors? What experience does the crew have? Are there sufficient contractors available for the estimated production?
  • How does the weatherization program mesh with the tribe’s policies and service delivery goals?
Application and Contract
  • Complete and submit.
  • Develop scope of work.
  • Establish contract performance period.
  • Develop training and technical assistance plan.
  • Develop performance plan, benchmarks, and production goals.
  • Provide technical assistance.
  • Perform quarterly monitoring, inspection, and technical assistance visits.

Challenges include:

  • Certified auditors and inspectors. Our state requires program energy auditors to be certified. We experienced a shortage of BPI Certified Building Analysts to perform audits and inspections during the tribal program auditor/inspectors training period. This delayed the start of tribal program production. Tribes temporarily contracted with local agencies for audits/inspections.
  • Tribal housing programs lacked weatherization policies. These needed to be implemented to allow programs to provide weatherization.
  • Application intake. Each tribe established guidelines for how to prioritize applications within tribal policies and weatherization program policies.
  • Income eligibility. Weatherization program income eligibility differs from income eligibility for some housing programs and tribal energy assistance programs. Sharing eligibility requirements among programs resolved many misunderstandings.
  • Production start-up. Production began slowly while entire crews became trained and gained experience. Tribes did not have the luxury of bringing new crew members into an established weatherization crew.

Three Successful Programs

Commerce currently provides funding to three tribes that have developed sustainable low-income weatherization programs.

Makah Tribal Housing, Neah Bay, Washington.The Makah Tribe is located at the northwesternmost point of the United States, on the Olympic Peninsula. The Makah Reservation is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north by the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Neah Bay is a coastal fishing community about 70 miles from Port Angeles.

Spokane Indian Housing Authority, Wellpinit, Washington. The Spokane Indian Tribe is in the northeast part of the state. It is located in mountainous terrain covered with ponderosa pine trees, about 35 miles from the city of Spokane.

Yakama Nation Housing Authority, Wapato, Washington.The Yakama Nation is located on a high desert in the middle of the state, within 20 miles of the city of Yakima.

The tribes that have established successful weatherization programs have been willing to invest the time and patience to learn building sciences unique to weatherization. They have dedicated attention to the management and administration of the program. These tribes show an interest in helping other tribes gain the knowledge and skills needed to implement weatherization programs. A key factor in their success is that each tribe has developed its own program thoroughly before reaching out to others.

learn more

The Weatherization Manual for Managing the Low-Income Weatherization Program was prepared for the Department of Energy and others by: Washington State Department of Commerce Community Services and Housing Division, April 2009 Edition (with 2010, 2011, and 2012 revisions).

For more information on Tribal Weatherization Programs, contact

State of Washington Department of Commerce

Housing Improvements and Preservation Unit

Steve Payne
Managing Director

Donn Falconer
Weatherization Tribal Liaison
(360) 725-2981

Tribal Weatherization Programs
Makah Tribal Housing
Tinker Lucas
Assistant Housing Director

Spokane Indian Housing Authority
Stephen Tsoodle
Weatherization Program Manager

Yakama Nation Housing Authority
Wade Porter
Weatherization Program Manager
(509)877-6171, Ext 1101

Observations from a Tribal Liaison

The importance of establishing the management and administration of the weatherization program cannot be overemphasized. It’s a crucial part of planning prior to beginning the program. The natural tendency is to place emphasis on training the crew first and learning about the program second. A lot of time and money can be spent in training a crew, and the program can still fail.

It can be exciting to learn the technical sciences of weatherization. It’s easy to focus on pressure diagnostics, air sealing, and installation of materials first. These are hands-on training, action, touching, and measuring, such as using cool tools like blower doors and manometers. You can see the results of air sealing by reading the numbers. And who can forget the horror stories about what you found in the crawl space?

“The file tells the story” is the mantra of the Commerce team and tribal weatherization programs. The client file tells everything that relates to the unit being weatherized. The program documentation tells everything that relates to the administration and management of the program. It’s all part of a well-managed program.

The tribes have a unique opportunity to improve the housing on their reservations by incorporating weatherization sciences into their housing repair and rehabilitation program and new construction. Weatherization program staff cross-train crews from the other departments and participate in development and planning of new construction.

While working with the tribes to develop their programs, I have observed that a well-managed program will ensure that the crew is well trained to perform the weatherization work. A well-trained crew cannot ensure that the program is well managed or that it will succeed. Here are a couple of ways I have found to ensure that the program is well managed.

  • First, promise only what you can do and do it.
  • Relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on repeated follow-through.
  • Start small and grow.
  • Who’s your champion? You must have a program champion if you want your program to succeed: someone who believes in the program, has the authority to commit personnel and funding, and promotes the training and advisory activities required to achieve success. Without a champion, the program can slide away and disappear as other priorities compete for time and funding.
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