'Weatherization Is About Warming Vermonters': How Gov. Scott's $25M Proposal Would Be Spent
Gov. Phil Scott wants to spend $25 million in federal funds to weatherize thousands of homes, especially those of low- and middle-income Vermonters.
Scott pitched the proposal during his budget address last week. He argues the investment would spur econhelp Vermont meet its climate goals by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and spur economic development.
Under this plan, $16 million would go to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency to help carry out the program.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins about Scott's weatherization proposal and the role VHFA would play if it passes. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So, first off, to be clear, when we say weatherization, what are we talking about?
Maura Collins: Weatherization is about warming Vermonters. It can happen through air sealing, insulation, upgrades to more efficient heating systems or more efficient windows and doors. And this is important, because we know Vermont is largely an unaffordable place to live, and utility costs are a big reason why.
Well, let's talk about this investment: $25 million is what Scott's proposing. That's a lot of money. It's more than he's proposed for broadband upgrades, for example, this year. But I want to put this in some context. How does that compare to how much the state is currently spending on weatherization programs?
This $25 million is going to be parsed out for several uses. There's a long-standing weatherization assistance program that serves very low-income Vermonters with grant funds, and that is going to receive an extra $4 million. There's another part of this money, about $5 million, that's going to help municipal buildings make their properties more energy efficient. And then $16 million of the $25 million is going to be dedicated to VHFA for the effort we're talking about here.
What exactly will your agency be doing, assuming this money passes?
We have a network of mortgage lending, and lending to developers of rental housing, and we're going to use that system and network to quickly get this funding out to the local weatherization providers, contractors, homeowners and renters.
Bonding may be a part of this, where we can take this one-time money from the state and multiply it with private investment to create a much bigger impact for the state. Because while $25 million for weatherization is a lot, it's really the beginning of seed money that will prompt a lot more work that needs to be done.
And what's the argument for using state and federal money to do a program like this? I mean, can't individual homeowners do these kinds of renovations themselves?
They can, and I think they do. What VHFA is focused on is low- and moderate-income Vermonters, and that's what this funding is dedicated to. It's to the people who maybe cannot take on more debt, or have trouble with approvals from loans, or really need some kind of subsidized interest rate to afford this work that we're talking about.
Additionally, we know that there are barriers to people doing this work. It is a project. It is having people in their homes. It is time that the homeowner gets impacted by. And so, part of this funding will be used to create incentives that really get homeowners excited about this opportunity.
I want to hear a little bit more about what this might look like in practice. I mean, would the state and VHFA be doing outreach to residents to get in line to get their homes weatherized? Or would it be up to individual homeowners to seek out this kind of funding to get this work done?
Outreach and marketing is going to be a key component of this program. It is not the homeowner’s responsibility to be seeking out all of these options, but it's our responsibility as stewards of public funds to make sure that people not only know what's available, but then provide the kind of services to effectively match folks for the best money that's available.
So, we absolutely see that not only marketing and outreach, but also working with those existing partners who already have relationships, like fuel dealers and community action programs and organizations that have been working with Vermonters for many years, and having them help spread the word so that homeowners can be connected with this money in the best way possible.
"Because while $25 million for weatherization is a lot, it's really the beginning of seed money that will prompt a lot more work that needs to be done." — Maura Collins, VHFA executive director
This is an ambitious goal to get thousands more homes weatherized. Does Vermont have the capacity in terms of the contractors and the construction workers to do this kind of work at the scale that it wants to, and also in terms of the quality that would ensure that these fixes last for many years?
It's a great question, and you're spot on with identifying it. We want to take the models that exist already in Vermont and bring them together into a comprehensive strategy for the state so we can bring weatherization to scale.
We've long known that we need to support this market so that we can grow the number of homeowners interested in weatherization projects and the contractors trained in this work, the number of lenders offering energy loan products and the rebates and incentives to make this work affordable.
There is a large portion of this money that is going to need to go to workforce development to make sure that we have the contractors trained and readily available to do this work.
Well, finally, this is a proposal by the governor. Obviously, the budget still needs to go through the Legislature. Are you optimistic that something on the scale of what's been proposed by the governor could pass the Legislature this session?
I really am. The reception so far by the Legislature has been very positive. And I think the hardest question I've been asked is, "Is this enough and will this do the trick?" And that shows an overall positive response, that people see the need for this.
And if anything, the question then becomes, "What else will we need to do to meet these energy goals?" Which is a fair question, and we're going to be building that as we go with this.
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