in Houston, Texas
Residents thankful for federal stimulus assistance; Sheltering Arms boosts work quality in weatherization program
Wednesday, Sep 01, 2010, 03:46PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
electricity meters

Standing in Doris Solomons' cramped but cool living room as the sobs choked her gratitude, I couldn't help but think all of this should have happened months ago.

Here was a woman who had recently lost her son to skin cancer, who had almost lost faith in a system that had promised to help her, testifying before a touring party of state and local officials on a swampy Tuesday in Houston. Across the little room from her was a brand new, properly ventilated space heater. In the tiny kitchen, separated by just a sheer hanging sheet, was a new refrigerator and her pride, a stove with hinges that actually kept the oven door from falling off. 

The new solar screens meant Solomons would no longer have to block the sun on the windows with aluminum foil. The doors were sealed, cracks were caulked and insulation blown in behind the walls. Blessedly brisk air poured from a new unit. And all "on account of you all and the good Lord," Solomons told her benefactors before tears shut her down. "Y'all don't understand. Oh, my God. I can't talk about it."

This, these officials told me after thanking Solomons for her graciousness, was what the Weatherization Assistance Program was all about. This was what Sheltering Arms Senior Services of Houston has been doing for people like Solomons for 30 or more years, Lynne Cook, the chief operating officer for the social services nonprofit, said. This is what the power of $326 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds was doing for people all over Texas, Michael DeYoung, a weatherization director for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said.

This was as if to say that Texas Watchdog's dozens of stories and blogs over the past eight months were looking at the weatherization in only one way, in a detached and negative way. And in a way, it's true. Texas Watchdog has reported extensively on Sheltering Arms' $22 million stimulus weatherization grant. The problems with the program have brought national attention. This is what we do here: hold government accountable for how it spends yours and our tax dollars.

But it isn't all we do. Back in January, Housing and Community Affairs officials who were having trouble getting weatherization moving in Texas said Sheltering Arms contractors were leading the state in the number of low income housing units made more energy efficient. Texas Watchdog asked then to visit weatherizing sites and to talk to some of the people, like Solomons, fortunate enough to get their homes remade and their utility bills reduced with as much as $6,500 in stimulus money for each home. And by seeing for ourselves, as a free press is compelled to do, we thought we could provide a public service by independently evaluating the work.

Sheltering Arms did not follow through on those requests. Instead, their attorneys asked for and got a ruling from the state attorney general that allowed Sheltering Arms to keep secret the names and addresses where weatherization work was being done. Sheltering Arms was using the law to prevent Texas Watchdog from telling the weatherization story in the other, more human way.

Thank Michael Gerber, the director of Housing and Community Affairs, for convincing the people at Sheltering Arms to change their way of thinking. Gerber has been stung by the coverage of his department having to move quadruple time to efficiently put into the pipeline a weatherization budget more than 12 times what the department had been receiving annually before the stimulus.

Gerber has also been demanding of Sheltering Arms, insisting on administrative and monitoring changes to improve the quality of the work being done by its contractors. The nonprofit has taken the criticism to heart, hiring an internal inspection chief and seeing a steep drop in its administrative expenses. 

Sheltering Arms continues to lead the way among the 44 agencies in Texas running weatherization programs, having weatherized nearly 2,000 homes through August. In its second monitoring report of contractor's work, state inspectors found 17 faulty weatherizing jobs out of 83 units inspected, by no means perfect, but a considerable improvement over a first state inspection that found that 60 percent of the jobs would require a return visit.

"Are they doing everything they should be doing? Not yet," DeYoung said. "But they have made a lot of improvement and have shown a willingness to work with our department to get better."

Sheltering Arms couldn't have had better spokespeople for its work than the people it enlisted to take part in the tour on Tuesday. 

People like Ollie James, living in one of the 189 units that received new air conditioning units and extensive energy efficiency upgrades at the Cambridge Village apartments. James, who keeps his one-bedroom apartment at 73 degrees because of a heart condition, presented utility bills showing monthly reductions of between $100 and $150 compared to the same period last year.

"I sat right here watching them replacing my windows," James said from the corner of his sofa. "They done a wonderful job."

Lost in their insistence on protecting the privacy of their clients was the opportunity to tell the story of stimulus weatherization as part of what Sheltering Arms has always done to help low-income and elderly people live better lives, Cook said. Cook said she hoped that by "over-communicating" with clients as well as the public she could better convey their message -- even though Cook would not permit Texas Watchdog to bring a videographer on the tour to document the finished work.

"Some of it has had to do with quality issues, some of it with communication," Cook said. "But I am pleased with the improvements we've made. We know because we've been out there talking to clients. We want them to know we are committed. We are so committed."

Gerber joined the group at the end of the tour, eyeballing the outer walls of Lucille Goff's home in south Houston near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where a crew was in the middle of completing about $3,500 in weatherization work. He congratulated Cook on the improvements made by the Sheltering Arms teams.

He clearly enjoyed not only seeing how the money his department controlled was put to work but that others were seeing it, too, even if a few months late. "This," he said with a smile, "is where the rubber meets the road."

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

Read more about how the federal stimulus is playing out in Texas. Search STIMULUS at www.texaswatchdog.org

Photo of electricity meters by flickr user Fatty Tuna, used via a Creative Commons license.

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