Prove your humanity

Sophia Schmidt | WHYY

A popular Pennsylvania home repair assistance program that garners bipartisan support but was a casualty of last year’s budget battles could get new funding in the coming months.

Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro included $50 million in state funding for the “Whole-Home Repairs” program in his 2024 budget proposal Tuesday. The program gives grants to low- and moderate-income homeowners for energy efficiency upgrades, like climate-friendly heat pumps and insulation, as well as basic home repairs.

“Actually installing new electrical systems — energy-efficient heating and cooling systems — in homes will drastically reduce energy burdens, and for that matter, greenhouse gas emissions,” said state Sen. Nikil Saval (D-Philadelphia), who spearheaded the program.

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The state launched the program with bipartisan support in 2022, using pandemic relief money.  Lawmakers passed additional state funding for it in 2023, but ultimately failed to approve the enabling legislation needed to release the money to the county-level agencies that distribute the funds.

“It was a casualty, I would say, of negotiations to secure final budget language,” Saval said.

Proponents see the program as a solution to improve housing affordability and stability, health and safety, and climate action.

In many counties, demand for the program has outpaced initial funding.

The Philadelphia Energy Authority has a waitlist of more than 1,000 people for its Built to Last program, which it funds in part with Whole-Home Repairs money, said President & CEO Emily Schapira.

So far, the authority has used the Whole-Home Repairs money to replace space heaters or gas-powered boilers with electric heat pumps, which both heat and cool a home, install rooftop solar panels, remediate mold, and insulate roof cavities, Schapira said.

“We’re able to meet both our home repair goals and our poverty reduction goals —  at the same time as we’re meeting our climate goals,” she said.

The authority aims to use the money to fill gaps not covered by other assistance programs, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program and the city’s Basic Systems Repair.

“We had one client — her chimney had collapsed, and that’s not part of any program,” Schapira said. “But it was causing her respiratory issues and other sorts of health problems. So we were able to use this funding to address those critical home needs.”

In places like Allegheny County, homeowners have gotten leaky roofs and crumbling foundations fixed.

But some elements of the program have not fully panned out.

In an effort to help renters as well as homeowners, the program offers forgivable loans to small landlords charging affordable rents. But Spotlight PA reports just a fraction of the county-level agencies administering the program have chosen to include landlords, because of a requirement that they monitor rents for more than a decade after providing the loans.

Many county-level agencies have also reportedly chosen to cap grants at $25,000 per household — half of the maximum amount allowed through the program — to avoid a requirement to pay contractors the prevailing wage.  Schapira said her organization typically hires small contractors that bill less than the prevailing wage.

“We cap the Whole-Home Repairs in Philadelphia at $25,000 so that we’re not having to try to go find either different contractors or just paying our contractors so much more and getting so much less for it,” she said.

Shapiro’s budget proposal will need to make it through the Republican-controlled state Senate as well as the House, which is currently split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. The election to replace a House Democrat who resigned in December is next week.

At least one Republican state Senator has pledged to support Whole-Home Repairs money this year. 

“It just got lost in the shuffle with all of the other competing programs,” state Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill) told Spotlight PA.