Published: Nov 13, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Nov 13, 2012 04:08 PM
I rent out the house I used to live in on Burch Avenue, and it was one of the last sites to get in on Durham’s Home Energy Savings Program (HESP).
With help from local nonprofit Clean Energy Durham, this city/county program hired small businesses to boost the efficiency of 700 houses. Workers in grubby clothes and dust masks did this with simple tasks like adding insulation, sealing the attic, basement and ductwork and installing water efficient showerheads, carbon monoxide detectors and programmable thermostats.
The money came partly from an EPA grant ($500,000), but mostly from Obama’s stimulus package ($2.1 million) passed in 2009 and widely credited for bringing the economy out of a nose-dive. But the property owners have skin in the game too. They ante’d up $200 to $400 in exchange for up to $2,000 worth of work depending on the size of the house.
Tobin Freid, manager of the Durham City-County Sustainability Office, estimates that the homeowners and renters of those 700 homes will save a total of about $280,000 each year. By 2016 that’ll be over a million dollars that Bull Citizens won’t be sending to Duke Power and PSNC, but will be spending locally for shopping, food and entertainment (and the local sales taxes that go with that).
I have rented out my 1930s-era bungalow for the last nine years partly as a way to stay connected to the neighborhood, partly because real estate is a great investment in Durham and partly because it gives me one more place to garden. If I had had to pay for all that insulation and other work, it would have ruled out installing a new roof this year; so not an option.
Like most landlords, I don’t pay the utilities so I don’t realize the payback for energy-efficiency improvements. And renters can hardly be expected to lay out that much cash when they won’t be staying long enough to recoup their expenses. The mathematics of rental housing often means that improvements lead to rents that are unaffordable for the working poor. But unimproved houses with affordable rents mean tenants stay poor because of high utility bills.
Having seen this successful program first hand, I think the benefits of HESP show us how to untie this knot.
While our government and local contractors have experience with these simple and effective improvements Durham County could continue the HESP program with a few hundred thousand dollars a year from a very small property tax boost. This could help working families get a leg up, put more private money in the pockets of local businesses, boost local sales tax revenues and reduce global climate disruption all at the same time.
There might be resistance to this proposal from the people who believe that the only way to get the economy moving is with tax cuts for corporations and millionaires. But the facts don’t support that.
An economist testifying before Congress in 2008 said the best “bang for the buck” for reviving the economy would come from extending unemployment benefits and food stamps. Why? Because the poorer a person is, the more likely they are to put the money right back into the retail economy rather than saving it.
So every dollar invested in unemployment benefits and food stamps would cycle through the local economy and grow in value to at least $1.64 in economic activity. On the other hand, a dollar devoted to tax cuts for corporations and millionaires would only generate 30 cents worth of economic activity; less than a fifth of the impact. So if the $280,000 annual savings mentioned above by Freid is spent, rather than saved, Durham businesses will realize about $450,000 worth of economic activity every year from this one program.
Did this analysis come from a socialist European economist? No, it came from an adviser to presidential candidate John McCain named Mark Zandi who is chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, hardly a leftist think tank.
So I have to ask, would you rather that you and your neighbors were sending less money to Duke and PSNC and spending the savings at local businesses? Would you like to reduce the cloud of climate disrupting gases coming form Durham homes? Would you like to see our working-poor neighbors able to climb the economic ladder?
Then ask our elected leaders to keep the HESP program in our government toolkit. It’s a clear example of government, property owners and small businesses working together to solve complex problems with a simple solution.
Frank Hyman has owned and operated Cottage Garden Landscaping in Durham for 20 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org