January 24, 2019

For years, Claudia Marron was used to doing everything on her own. But a shoulder injury from a car accident stopped her in her tracks.

She couldn’t work her construction job. Without her usual income, bills started piling up. And for the first time, she had to make decisions about which bills to skip just to keep the lights on in her house.

“It’s very frustrating when you know that you have to buy something and you don’t have the money, especially when you have a kid with asthma and you need to have a warm place for her,” Marron says. “Many times, I had to not pay my car payment so I could pay the electric bill.”

Marron represents one of 35 million American households who have experienced energy burden: when a disproportionate amount of someone’s paycheck goes to paying their energy bills.

The average low-income household spends 8.2 percent of its income on energy — that’s three times as much as higher-income households. Many low-income households experience energy burden on top of rent burden, gentrification, and other barriers that higher-income communities don’t experience as much. This puts them at a disadvantage in other areas of life, as they are then unable to afford other needs such as education and health care.

But in 2018, thanks to the Multnomah County Weatherization Program, Marron found the relief she needed to focus on other priorities: her future, her family’s health and her daughter’s education.

The County’s Weatherization Program helps people with lower incomes by making their houses more energy efficient, comfortable, healthy and safe. The program’s work comes at no cost to clients. The only criteria: Clients must reside in Multnomah County, live at or below 200 percent of Federal Poverty Level ($50,200 a year, for a family of four), and own or rent a permanent or mobile home.

For many Weatherization participants, the program can be the difference between stability and uncertainty. Jack Baikov, a Weatherization inspector with the Department of County Human Services, says he’s seen firsthand the effects of energy burden.

“So many of my clients are worried about, and have to make, priorities,” Baikov says, “whether they are buying medicine, whether they are buying food, or whether they are paying their electric bill. It’s a constant struggle.”

County energy inspection leads to home improvements

Marron learned about the Weatherization Program after she noticed a neighbor renovating their house. At the time, Marron knew her house needed repairs, too. Her furnace barely worked, yet her bills were too high. She had no idea how she’d find the money.

When Marron asked about the renovations, her neighbor told her about the County’s Weatherization Program. At first, Marron thought it was too good to be true. After that conversation she applied, just to see what would happen.

To her surprise, Marron was approved. In due time, Baikov arrived at her door. As an inspector, his job is to audit clients’ homes to determine how they can be more energy efficient.

After inspecting Marron’s house, Baikov noticed some areas that needed upgrading. With a few fixes, he believed the County could reduce her energy bills and create a healthier home environment for Marron’s daughter.

“Claudia has been maintaining her house really well,” Baikov says. “But her furnace definitely needed replacement. I found that the floors were not insulated, so probably two of the most major parts that this house needed was insulating the floor and replacing the furnace.”

After inspecting the house, the County worked with a contractor to do the renovations. Marron’s furnace was replaced with a heat pump, which is significantly more efficient and about a third of the cost. Insulation was installed beneath her floors, and air flow was improved throughout the house.

Home renovations reduce utility bills, improve family’s health

After the contractor finished, Marron says, the difference was significant  — especially for her daughter, whose asthma was frequently triggered at home. With her home properly weatherized, her bills became more affordable and her daughter’s health quickly improved.

“When Lorena, my daughter, comes home from school, she’s not cold,” she says. “And she likes to spend time here and she likes to call this place home. I say, ‘Do you like this place?’ And she says, ‘Yeah, I like my home!’”

Now, with a new outlook on life, Marron has a suggestion for people in similar situations: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“I’m so thankful,” she says. “It’s impossible to describe the feeling in my heart. When Jack came and told me that Multnomah County can help, it was a big, huge relief.”

Do you know someone who might qualify for the Weatherization program? Anyone looking to participate must fill out the short pre-screener.