Build It Green Wants to Make Homes Healthier

It’s using two new programs — Health Home Connect and the Low Income Weatherization Project — to help the poor make housing improvements they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.


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Photo and graphic courtesy of Build It Green

Mold. Water seepage. Unsafe HVAC systems leaking carbon monoxide. Dilapidated roofs. Low-income people in the Bay Area not only face a critical shortage of affordable housing — but the housing they can afford is negatively impacting their health.

Oakland-based nonprofit Build It Green, known also as BIG, created an innovative program called Healthy Home Connect, which is reaching out to multiple communities and aiding residents to make housing improvements they otherwise could not afford.

“Housing services are often siloed and delivered inefficiently. Energy efficiency and weatherization programs do not address home health conditions, which are often closely related,” said Karin Burns, executive director of BIG. Many homes are disqualified from receiving energy efficiency and solar improvements because of existing conditions, she said. Yet there is a strong link between health and energy efficiency in homes, and energy upgrades often provide health co-benefits.

“Healthy Home Connect’s approach can help communities simultaneously address the affordable housing crisis, the climate crisis, and the public health issues that affect thousands of individuals and families in communities facing inequities,” said Burns.

The issue is important for multiple groups right now. An April 24 release from the Asian Pacific Environmental Network noted that, “Seventy percent of multifamily buildings in California were built before basic building standards for insulation, ventilation, and vapor barriers were introduced. Often, families living in hazardous living conditions don’t raise these issues because they’re afraid that their rents will go up.” APEN successfully lobbied to get the Healthy Homes Act, AB 1232, out of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, and is girding to help push it through the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.

Meanwhile, however, BIG’s Heathy Home Connect, using a $100,000 grant from Facebook and working with community partner El Concilio of San Mateo County, finished upgrading 18 homes in the Belle Haven Community in San Mateo County earlier this year. “Heathy Home Connect aids in funding the gaps that exist in other programs,” Burns said. “We can cover things such as carpet removal, roof repairs, and replacing ventilators.” She said key to the success of the upgrade is “treating the home comprehensively, instead of by a patchwork approach.”

Another major partner in Healthy Home Connect is the Hayward Score, an organization founded in 2008 by Bill Hayward, who is also the CEO of Hayward Lumber. In 2008, he and his family began experiencing various symptoms while living in their custom-built “dream home,” including respiratory distress, loss of concentration, and fatigue. As a result of his investigations into problems in his own home, Hayward created the Hayward Score, a detailed online survey that residents of any building can take for free to identify existing and possible health hazards in their homes.

“Half the homes [people live in] are making them sick,” said Hayward. He described the process of designing the survey as a combination of “building and medical science.” The irony of homes built in the 1970s and later is that the very “tightness” that saves energy can also cause them to hold in pollution, leading to allergy symptoms, asthma, poor sleep quality, and many other ailments, he said.

Those taking the Hayward Score easily identify obvious hazards, such as possible lead paint and asbestos in older buildings. They are also alerted to less obvious red flags, such as the fact that regular steaming of vegetables in an improperly ventilated kitchen adds to the moisture content in a home, facilitating mold growth, or that some “cleaning” products are actually adding to the toxins in their homes. “Forty percent of illness is related to indoor air quality,” Hayward said.

The East Bay is humid, and humidity builds up moisture in walls, he explained. That, combined with crawl spaces trapping water, and downspouts and gutters dumping rainwater too close to foundations, is also ideal for mold. Commenting on 2019’s wet winter, he said, “Our homes were not designed for the rain forest.”

Major upgrading is often necessary, but even simple changes can help, such as adding range hoods to stoves and opening windows in bathrooms during showers and baths, he noted. The Belle Haven residences will be re-scored after six months to track improvements, said Burns. To take the survey for your home, go to HaywardScore.com.

BIG also administers another program aiding low-income homeowners, this one currently focused on Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The Low Income Weatherization Project is designed for those who meet income qualifications and who live in communities designated for community investment by the State of California.

This program is focused on increasing energy efficiency in homes, providing free energy efficiency and solar upgrades to thousands of qualified California homes. “We also use custom-designed software to collect information on the health of the homes,” said Jake Tisinger, BIG’s senior program manager for the program.

In 12 months of the program, 830 homes statewide were upgraded, 164 solar systems were installed, and $3 million spent on “energy-efficient measures,” amounting to $5,500 per home, at no cost to the homeowners, he said. Red-tagged furnaces and ancient AC units were replaced, leaky ducts repaired, and energy-efficient appliances installed, along with basic weatherization upgrades. “Different homes have different needs. Roofs may need repairs before solar can be installed, there may be moisture or pest infestations that need to be addressed,” Tisinger noted.

BIG is looking to expand both Healthy Home Connect and the low income weatherization project, said Burns. The organization is seeking out communities with potential in-place partners, such as El Concilio, which can help it identify qualifying residents.

“The sky is the limit,” said Burns. “The time to do something about this is now.”

 

For more information about BIG and Healthy Home Connect, go to BuildItGreen.org.

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