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Nation looking to weatherproof homes

Monday, August 15, 2011

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation is seeking to reduce the cost of utilities for its low-income residents with the help of a multi-million dollar grant from the federal government.

For many Nation residents, utility bills are more costly than they could be because of cracks in walls, single-pane windows and inefficient heating. Many of the low-income homes on the reservation barely keep the elements at bay.

In 2009, the Navajo Nation's Weatherization Assistance Program received $9 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to keep the heat in and the cold out.

The repairs will address everything from general heat waste to insulation and storm windows, Nation officials said Friday.

"Weatherization on the Nation is a big deal," Community Housing Program Supervisor Chavez John said. "Right now, our cost of energy is much higher than it should be and is causing hardship for low-income families. This is a way to conserve energy."

The funds will be dispersed through local chapters, but not all of the 110 chapters will receive money.

"Only certified chapters will be getting funding for projects," John said.

The reason only the 27 chapters are receiving reinvestment dollars is because the certification process makes local governments more efficient and accountable, spokesman Rick Abasta said.

"The Local Government Act decentralized authority to the chapter level," Abasta said. "It put in a multi-level management system that includes sound accounting principles and standardized methods for procurement, personnel and property."

The goal, according to John, is to allow the chapters the autonomy to do their own projects, hire their own people and perform the construction in-house.

"We do take part in the selection process," John said. "We've staff that are certified to do energy audits of houses that have applied for weatherization."

The goal is to get 1,000 homes weatherized by March, but Weatherization Program Supervisor Elfina Wauneka is pushing to get those homes inspected and finished by December 31.

There are rules for what sort of houses can receive weatherization upgrades.

The most important, according to a Nation press release, is that the "home must be substantially complete, meaning permanent foundation, floor, walls, roof, windows, doors and a heating system."

Only low-income households will be eligible, and the projects are essentially patch-and-seal jobs, not complete renovations, officials said Friday.

"Each house will have a weatherization inspection," Wauneka said. "We've been hiring inspectors and sending them to a boot camp in Phoenix where they're being certified to use new technology and equipment.

"Really what they will be doing is trying to detect air leaks in the houses," she said. "Another problem is that many Nation houses use wood stoves for heating and quite a few leak. If it poses health and safety issues for residents, then we can actually replace the stove."

Wauneka stressed that this doesn't apply to cooking appliances, only those stoves used for heating.

Weatherization isn't the only benefit to come out of stimulus funding. According to Wauneka, the sheer size of the grant will provide an economic boost for the Nation through job creation.

"The chapters will be hiring their own people," Wauneka said. "There's going to be quite a few projects, so this not only helps lower utility bills, it also creates needed jobs."

The program has created five agencies to help manage the effort, and has already added 70 positions. Weatherization personnel assist certified chapters with new employee orientation, review the scope of work and help with the pre- and post-testing of project homes.

The $9 million grant represents a serious jump in Weatherization Assistance Program funding; prior to 2009, the program's annual budget was between $200,000 and $300,000.

Wauneka has a hard time containing her excitement.

"There's going to be quite a few projects," she said. "Our stated goal is 1,000 homes, but I am pushing to try and get as many as 1,500 weatherized."

Kurt Madar
The Daily Times