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Rural Alaska

Budget cuts for Alaska weatherization program will leave dozens of families to fend for themselves

As winter closes in and $5 million for weatherization services has been cut from the capital budget, there’s growing uncertainty about what resources lower-income Alaskans might have for making their homes safer and more energy-efficient.
  • Author: Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM
  • Published November 1

Windows and skirting were recently in the process of being replaced on this house in Nome. (Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM)

NOME -- It’s late September and Leemon Carl is making marks on a new window-frame he is building in Nome.

“As you can see these windows are just plexiglass and we’re changing them out to insulated windows, double-paned windows. It’s going to make a huge difference changing that out to a real-window,” Carl said.

Carl is a full-time contractor for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP). He travels around Alaska weatherizing rural homes, like Deidra Thornton’s in Nome.

“We’ve got new windows, two new doors, they did the skirting, they fixed our forced air ducts," Thornton said.

Basically, the kind of work that can make homes more efficient and save homeowners money on their energy bills. Already, Thornton says, the amount of fuel they would have normally used in eight days now lasts for 21 days.

Weatherization includes updates that can prevent fires, mitigate mold, and improve indoor air quality, among other things.

As for Carl, his own home in Kipnuk was served by RurAL CAP about 10 years ago. Afterward, Carl started working for the program part time.

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“It’s just great for the economy, you know?” he said.

That’s because it can help people like Carl get jobs, and low-income families can spend money they saved on heating for groceries, health care and other necessities.

RurAL CAP funding is administered through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., and in August Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $5 million for its weatherization programs.

AHFC Deputy Executive Director Mark Romick explains that its funding is spread between a number of contractors, including RurAL CAP.

Romick says any funding cuts would affect the upcoming grant year for contractors soliciting projects during the spring. Romick isn’t able to give a date for when AHFC will have those funding allocations decided, but says it will be before March, as most program grant years run March to March.

The governor’s veto included the entire state portion of weatherization funding for AHFC, but Romick says they still have other funding options.

“The weatherization program is going to continue regardless because we continue to get almost $2 million in federal weatherization funds. There will be weatherization happening in Alaska through this program, just not at the same level as it might have been in the past.”

Romick says other organizations offer weatherization programs, like regional housing authorities, but residents in the Bering Strait region don’t have many choices.

Frank Johnson II, project administrator for Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority, explains that the authority hasn’t been able to offer a weatherization program since 2008. He said tribal homeowners could apply for a Housing Preservation Loan, but that only covers up to $30,000 and there’s already a waitlist. Johnson noted that Nome Eskimo Community, Stebbins and Unalakleet have housing authorities that tribal members could turn to for assistance.

So for now, RurAL CAP is anticipating a reduction in funding and announced Sept. 3 that it expects 16 communities in Alaska to lose weatherization services. Those communities include Brevig Mission, Gambell, Kotzebue, Mountain Village, Nome, Savoonga, Teller and White Mountain. RurAL CAP also said it expects to cut about 15 jobs around the state.

Before the funding cuts, RurAL CAP could use combined state and federal funding to accommodate the high costs of serving Western Alaska. A family of three making less than $84,000 in the Bering Strait region could qualify for some type of weatherization help, according to Curtis Ecklund, weatherization manager for RurAL CAP

Now the program will only be able to help what the federal government sets as the low-income threshold, he said.

“We’re stuck with, left with, the federal funding and those income limits are down at $53,830 so we lose that moderate-income people that we can’t serve anymore. And the volume of people, as well. Less people, lower income, and we’re really able to do less to their homes as well because it’s a smaller amount of funding.”

RurAL CAP foreman Shelby Clem says the cuts have already impacted work in communities besides Nome.

“We’ve kind of already pulled all of our stuff out of the rural villages where I was working at because without the state funding we definitely can’t afford to work in the rural villages anymore.”

Historically, RurAL CAP would base a project in a community for an extended time, keeping supplies and housing workers for an entire season to do multiple projects. But with continual funding reductions, Clem says, it’s cost-prohibitive to store supplies and house teams in villages. He says hubs are being utilized more to have workers fly out on a case-by-case basis. Many of the homes Clem has worked on in rural communities have been Bureau of Indian Affairs homes that were never suited for the Arctic.

The cuts won’t affect projects already approved, but RurAL CAP estimated 120 low-income families across Alaska won’t get weatherization services next year. That might leave more people to weatherize their home on their own, something Deidra Thornton of Nome says she wouldn’t have been able to do without the program.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it financially. Because of our living expenses. The rate of fuel is too high.”

This article originally appeared at KNOM.org and is republished here with permission.