Multnomah County weatherization program improves housing livability, affordability

November 7, 2017

Thomas Mitchell's home received new roof through weatherization program.
Thomas Mitchell heard from a friend that Multnomah County might be able to do something about his leaky roof. His 105-year-old North Portland home was letting through so much water, that Mitchell -- an 85-year-old Korean War veteran -- had collected and emptied 30 gallons of rainwater in three or four months and patched his ceiling three times.

New leaks were starting to spring and Mitchell worried about what would happen if he could no longer empty all that rain.

“I didn’t expect much,” Mitchell said. “But I figured it was something worth looking into.”

Mitchell applied to the Multnomah County Weatherization Program, a free service available to people with limited or low income. The service is intended to improve livability and affordability of housing for people living on a fixed or low income by updating appliances, insulation, furnaces and related items to reduce energy costs.

The program works this way: After a homeowner applies, an inspector conducts an energy audit of the home to determine what measures can be taken to cut energy costs. The inspector, for instance, might determine that a home needs an insulated attic or a new heating system or plumbing repairs or air and duct sealing or all of the above.

"For Thomas’s home, replacing the roof was the first priority. If not addressed the home would have rotted away and/or had mold issues," said Jaycob Padron, who works as one of the county’s inspectors. “There would be no point in weatherizing if the home was not habitable due to the roof leak causing problems. In every home that we  weatherize we strive to leave them with a safe and healthy environment. Many times we also improve the air quality and the comfort level of the home. It’s a great feeling knowing when you go into work that you will be helping people.” 

Thomas Mitchell collected rainwater in buckets before his leaky roof was replaced.

All of the work is done free of charge and the program is open to Multnomah County residents, who meet low-income requirements and who own or rent a site built or mobile home. Renters must get landlord approval.

Weatherization improves economic stability

Last winter was the Portland area’s coldest since 1978-79. Ice and snow, at one point, stranded motorists and shut down schools and businesses for days. Experts already are predicting a colder than average winter for the Pacific Northwest this year.

Weatherization keeps homes warmer in the winter, especially important for people with limited or low incomes. Energy costs disproportionately affect low-income households. The Department of Energy estimates that low-income households pay an average of 13 percent of their income for energy expenses compared with 5 percent for the average household. In some fixed income households, energy costs can reach as high as 35 percent of total monthly expenses. The Department of Energy estimates that weatherized households save an average of $274 annually in energy costs.

Last winter, there were reports of area residents choosing between heating their homes and buying food during the coldest periods.

Homes that are safe and adequately weatherized contribute to the well-being and overall economic stability of households living on fixed and low incomes.

“The low-income families we serve don’t have the money to replace an inefficient furnace or insulate their home.  More often than not, they just stop using a bad furnace to keep their power from being turned off.  This program saves energy, lowers bills and can be the difference to keep someone in their home,” Gary Walsworth, Weatherization and Energy Program Specialist said.

In fiscal year 2016, the Multnomah County Weatherization program served 562 households. The county’s weatherization upgrades -- the average cost of which is about $10,000 to $20,000 -- lowers utility bills by about 40 percent, said Walsworth.

There is usually a waiting list to join the program, so people are urged to sign up as soon as possible.

New roof allows aging in place

Mitchell, like thousands of other older adults in Multnomah County, lives on a fixed income. Through the weatherization program his home got a new roof, updated electrical work and all-around insulation. He doesn’t know just yet by how much the changes will reduce his energy bill because his billing is levelized each year. But he said he already notices a difference.

“I can tell from the insulation that it’s working,” Mitchell said.

Arguably, more important, he said, is that he now is confident that he will be able to remain in his home for as long as he chooses to live independently because the cost to maintain it won’t chip away at his limited income.

He knows not everyone is as fortunate. Mitchell, for instance, is a spry octogenarian and former construction contractor. He was able to do some work to keep his home safe before his roof was replaced. But not all older adults, he said, have the knowledge or physical ability to do the work he did.

“I’ve run into people when I was in the construction business whose houses needed a lot of work,” Mitchell said. “They’re elderly and sometimes they can’t even stay in their homes because they need repairs.”

Since his home was updated, Mitchell has adjusted his will to include a donation of half of his estate to the weatherization program to help other people who are struggling.

“I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do,” he said.

Anyone interested in signing up for the Weatherization Program can call 503.988.7423 or email