Dunleavy weatherization cuts mean higher bills, fewer jobs as winter approaches in Western Alaska

Windows and skirting were in the process of being replaced on this house in Nome. Photo by Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2019).

As winter closes in, and $5,000,000 for weatherization services cut from the state capital budget, there’s growing uncertainty about what access low-income Alaskans might have for making their homes safer and more energy efficient, especially in Western Alaska.

In September, Leemon Carl was 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,” he said.

Carl is a full-time contractor for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program . He travels around the state to different communities weatherizing rural homes, like Deidra Thornton’s house in Nome.

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

Basically, the kind of work that can make homes more efficient and save home-owners money on their energy bills. Already, Thornton says the amount of fuel they would have normally used in 8 days now lasts for 21 days. She’s also seeing a reduction in her in energy bill too. 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. Afterwards, Carl started working for the program part-time.

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

Leemon Carl of RurAL CAP replaces windows on a house in Nome as part of the program’s weatherization service. Photo from Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2019).

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

RurAL CAP has their funding administered through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) and in August Governor Mike Dunleavy line-item vetoed $5 million for AHFC’s weatherization programs.

“We haven’t completed the internal conversations about how we’re going to implement the Capital Budget,” Romick said.  

AHFC Deputy Executive Director Mark Romick explained that their 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 wasn’t able to give a date for when AHFC will have those funding allocations decided, but said it will be before March, as most program grant years run March to March.

The governor’s veto includes 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 $2,000,000 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,” he said.

Romick said that there are other organizations that do offer weatherization programs, like regional housing authorities but residents in the Bering Strait region don’t have many choices in that regard.

Frank Johnson II is the Project Administrator for Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority and explained that they haven’t been able to offer a weatherization program since 2008. He says tribal homeowners could apply for a Housing Preservation Loan but that only covers up to $30,000 and there’s already a waitlist for that program. Johnson noted that Nome Eskimo Community, Stebbins, and Unalalakleet have housing authorities that tribal members may turn to for assistance.

So for now, RurAL CAP is anticipating a reduction in funding and announced in a September 3rd press release that they expect 16 communities in Alaska to lose weatherization services because of the reduced money. Some of those communities included Brevig Mission, Gambell, Kotzebue, Mountain Village, Nome, Savoonga, Teller, and White Mountain. Also on that press release, RurAL CAP said they expect to cut about 15 jobs total 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 Straits region could qualify for some type of weatherization help, according to Weatherization Manager for RurAL CAP Curtis Ecklund.

Ecklund said that now the program will only be able to help what the federal government sets as the low-income threshold.

“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,” he said.

With less funding, less work to do, and reduced services in Nome, RurAL CAP Foreman Shelby Clem says the cuts have already impacted their work in other communities.

“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,” he said.

Historically, RurAL CAP would base a project in a community for an extended amount of time, keeping supplies and housing workers there for an entire season to do multiple projects. But with continual funding reductions, Clem says it’s too cost-prohibitive to store supplies and house teams in village communities. 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 the rural communities have been Bureau of Indian Affairs homes that were never suited for the Arctic.

The cuts won’t affect projects that were already approved, but in their press release RurAL CAP estimated 120 low-income families across Alaska won’t get weatherization services next year. That might leave more people to weatherize their homes 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,” she said.

RuRAL CAP has urged Alaskans to contact their legislators if they want weatherization funding reinstated into the capital budget for the future.