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Urban League of St. Louis Ramps Up Weatherization Production and Hiring

April 16, 2010 - 4:50pm

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When Brenda Wrench saw the amount of weatherization funds being awarded to St. Louis last year, she did a double take. “It was unbelievable,” says the chief operating officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. “When I first got the email, I thought they were off by a decimal point.”

A closer look revealed that the community action agency’s federal funding jumped from about $1 million in 2008 to more than $7 million, due to the Recovery Act.

The increase gave the nonprofit the resources to weatherize nearly four times the number of homes it typically tackles in a month and create over 40 new green jobs in the community.

Urban League’s goal is to weatherize about 1,500 eligible homes with Recovery Act funds by 2012. Since July, they have been retrofitting and upgrading over 50 homes a month, up from just 15 homes in 2008, to make them more energy efficient. They are providing free home weatherizing for the elderly and for families earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Weatherizing the homes, some as old as 100 years, can reduce utility costs for residents by a range of $250 to $700 a year, according to the Urban League.

To perform the energy audits and weatherize the homes, Urban League hired a variety of contractors and organizations in the area.

“We're employing the small, mom-and-pop shops all the way up to the big horses,” Brenda says.  They work with everyone from a man who replaces cracked furnaces to the large union crews which employ professional carpenters.  One such crew, the Legacy Building Group — a certified Minority Owned Enterprise — performs all weatherizing duties, including wall insulation and finished carpentry.

“We also hired three people from the home building industry that had been laid off, with 30 years experience, as weatherization auditors,” Brenda says. “We consider our auditors the front lines of our organization, so we set pretty high standards for them.”

One of those hired is Jack Howard, an energy-audit supervisor who lost his construction job in 2008. Before coming on board with the Urban League in 2009, he spent 40 years building new homes for the Jones Company.

“The housing market finally caught up with me,” says Jack, who is happy to be weatherizing homes even though he took a pay cut to work as an auditor. Building new homes does not have the same emotional impact as repairing existing homes, he says.

“This is best end of the deal because I get to give people a much more comfortable home,” Jack says. “A lot of them tell me they get a good reduction in their utility bill, and I get all the thanks.”

Brenda says that Urban League has put in a request for another $7 million to perform other work in the region, including weatherization of seven homeless shelters.

The additional money could create another 30 to 40 jobs, she adds.

“We view this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to help stabilize the low-income community,” Brenda says. “We are thankful….because this really is extraordinary.”

Editor's note: As of July 2010, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis created 62 green jobs.  The organization has received additional Recovery Act funds - $4.7 million for St. Louis and $2.1 for St. Louis County – and seeks to weatherize 2,300 homes by 2012.

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