From its founding in the precarious 1970s through its expansion during the 2008 Housing Crisis and into the present, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) has known many changes. As it enters its 44th year today, WAP continues to be a model for how social assistance programs can be more than the sum of their parts. Touching the lives of homeowners, renters, weatherization crews, and state administrators, WAP has weathered ups and downs but has always brought critical help to those who need it. As COVID-19 presents a new challenge, states, territories, local providers, and the people they serve have shown the perseverance that made WAP what it is today and that will bring it into the future.
WAP has been no stranger to crises from the day it was signed into law. In 1973, the United States was under an oil embargo from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which caused skyrocketing energy prices and sent waves of instability through the global economy. Despite the embargo ending just a year later, its economic impact prompted changes in US policy like fuel economy standards and an increased interest in energy efficiency. This set the stage for August 14, 1976 when Gerald Ford signed the Energy Conservation and Production Act, instructing the Federal Energy Administration, now the Department of Energy, to establish a weatherization program to assist low-income people, especially children, the elderly, and those with disabilities.
At first, WAP used volunteer workers to install temporary weatherization measures like window caulking and plastic sheeting. However, before the end of its first decade the program had already transitioned to more cost-effective measures and professionalized services. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the rise of energy audits contributed to a new “whole-house approach” that emphasized efficiency as well as health and safety in all of a home’s systems. New technologies like blower doors and infrared cameras allowed weatherization and audit crews to improve homes like never before, increasing savings for residents while keeping millions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere
Following the 2008 Housing Crisis, there was both a need to reduce the energy burden for low-income people struggling to remain in their homes as well as an opportunity to increase employment in the growing energy efficiency sector. This was accomplished through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that skyrocketed WAP funding to $5 billion over 3 years and led to the weatherization of more than half a million homes. According to an Oak Ridge National Laboratory study, the act supported around 28,000 jobs and increased national economic output by $4 billion. At a time when both home ownership and employment were hard hit, investment in WAP kept people housed and working.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic turmoil present a new hurdle for WAP to overcome. Millions of Americans are experiencing economic precarity and a heightened energy burden at a time when in-person home weatherization is more difficult than ever. Despite this, more than 95% of community action agencies stayed open and state agencies moved to remote work to continue serving clients. Like they have in the past, WAP grantees and providers continue to find new ways to assist those in need while innovating energy efficiency methods and tactics. Through the hard work of thousands of state and territory administrators, local agency advocates, and home weatherization crews, WAP is as resilient on its 44th anniversary as it was on its first.