The neighborhood looked as it has for decades: squat brick ranch homes beneath towering pines. There were fewer new builds and renovated Craftsman houses than the canvassers had encountered in more gentrified enclaves. Fewer loose dogs, too, they noted with relief.
Most residents weren’t home. A few shouted hostilities from behind locked doors. The canvassers skipped the homes that had signs warning “No Trespassing” or “There will be no warning shot.”
Just before their mid-afternoon break, they knocked on the door of Verrease Miller, 67. She moved slowly, gesturing to the long, vertical scar on her chest from where she’d had open heart surgery just a few months ago.
Miller has lived in her home for more than 40 years. She gets income from Social Security and has also received federal assistance for her energy bills, but her Georgia Power bill continues to rise with rate increases, she said. When the canvassers told her she may be eligible to benefit from weatherization and other programs, she started to cry.
“It’s ok — you’re still here,” canvasser Linda McIntosh comforted her. “You’re on your way to health and wellness.”
Later, McIntosh said encounters like the one with Miller make the hard work of going door to door worth it.
“It’s like the whole day went well, even if it’s just one person,” McIntosh said.
The canvassers were hired by Sustainable Georgia Futures, a nonprofit that is working with the city of Atlanta’s sustainability office to get its low-income weatherization program, dubbed WeatheRISE ATL, off the ground two years after it was scheduled to launch.
So far, they are about halfway toward their goal of knocking on 5,000 doors throughout 11 neighborhoods that have been identified as the most energy-burdened in the city, meaning that those residents spend a higher percentage of their income on energy bills. The program seeks 200 homeowners who will work with the National Association of Minority Contractors on home improvements and weatherization.
WeatheRISE ATL was conceived at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and was supposed to be funded with $3.5 million from pandemic relief funds. But not long after its 2021 announcement, Its budget was reduced to about $2.4 million and the program was delayed as the city’s sustainability office struggled to recover momentum lost during changes in mayoral leadership.
Since then, the city has hired energy equity advocate Chandra Farley to lead its sustainability office and President Joe Biden has made climate change and green jobs a cornerstone of his administration — and his bid for reelection in 2024 — with the biggest infusion of funding for climate initiatives in the country’s history. Biden also set an ambitious if amorphous goal of ensuring 40% of the “overall benefits” of the federal government’s climate investments flow to disadvantaged communities.
All this amounts to an unprecedented opportunity for programs like WeatheRISE ATL, which Farley hopes to expand on to reach renters and others not currently eligible.
“We just got started but we’re real clear on using this opportunity to address those barriers,” Farley said.
The idea of subsidizing improvements to make homes more energy efficient, and therefore more affordable, isn’t new. The federal government began a Weatherization Assistance Program through all 50 states in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis.
Over the past forty-plus years, the program has helped weatherize millions of homes for those earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level — currently about $60,000 for a family of four. Recent legislation, including the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, have drastically expanded federal support for weatherization.
The infrastructure law included a boost to the legacy weatherization assistance program of $3.5 billion, of which Georgia’s share is $84 million in additional funding over five years — a huge increase for a program that typically gets $9 to $13 million a year. There are also billions of dollars for rebates and tax credits for energy efficiency upgrades.
While the funding opportunities are unprecedented, the goals, particularly around helping disadvantaged communities, are also ambitious.
“If you’re not reaching the people and the community that is being mostly impacted by this, it doesn’t make a difference how much money you spend,” said Adrienne Rice, the founder and executive director of Sustainable Georgia Futures.
Rice said the way organizations engage with disadvantaged communities and communities of color matters. She said her own organization recruits canvassers from the communities they target and pays at least $20 an hour, and covers transportation, food and childcare.
Allie Brown, the political director of Georgia Conservation Voters, praised Atlanta for making the extra effort to reach vulnerable residents, including seniors, who may have high power bills but don’t have the ability or time to look up resources online. She said state and federal agencies need to think seriously about how they are going to address those barriers.