Ben Brandin, above, is one of six members of the CoLaborative Thesis Group. All six theses examine New Strategies for an Old Crisis: Regenerating Local Economies, each in a different American City.
On Wednesday April 21st, Benjamin Brandin, presented his thesis, Bridging the Gap: Designing an Energy Efficiency Retrofit Strategy for Oakland, California, to more than fifteen audience members including MIT Professors Paul Osterman and Lorlene Hoyt, CoLab staff, fellow Urban Planning students, friends and family.
Brandin’s talk addressed a pivotal issue in the United States: the recent outflow of Stimulus dollars has caused many to question the ability of federal dollars to produce meaningful economic, social and environmental change at the local level. Particularly, the massive amounts of funding injected into the Weatherization Assistance Program has many advocates promoting home energy retrofit programs as a critical response to the nation’s unemployment, economic, and energy problems.
Brandin’s research evaluates the soundness of Oakland, California’s stimulus-funded retrofit efforts and argues that Oakland has done a poor job of leveraging the funding. It also evaluates Oakland’s program against best practices gleaned from stimulus-funded retrofit programs in Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon. Ben focuses on Oakland because it has a unique history of federal investment and deep, persistent poverty. Moreover, Oakland has received $205 million in stimulus funds, including $71 million for workforce development and energy efficiency programs.
Best practices from the Seattle program include its finance structure (low-interest rates and flexible payment schedules for loans) and its establishment of a job creation program for residential retrofits. Seattle also formed a policy task force, which created policy requiring building owners to disclose energy usage in hopes that this will encourage more retrofits.
A major strength of Portland’s program is also its finance structure, which includes low-interest rates, a long amortization period and the use of on-bill financing. Other strengths include a community workforce agreement and a building stock analysis that determined which buildings are most appropriate to be retrofitted.
Next Ben presented a model of action explaining how Oakland can optimize the Federal government’s investment. If Ben could “play planner for a day,” his specific recommendations for improvement would include revising the revolving loan finance structure, partnering with the community development financial institutions fund, using incentive programs and prioritizing historically disadvantaged groups. Ben also recommends that Oakland, like Portland, use building stock and population data to focus efforts on the oldest building stock and the lowest income populations.
Lastly, Ben argues that there is the need for an umbrella organization to help cities implement retrofit programs across the country. An umbrella organization would bring the city and business community together, mediate the community workforce agreement development process, lobby cities and states to adopt policies to incentivize and promote retrofits, seek additional private investment, and grow and mediate the revolving loan fund process.
In the question and answer portion of Ben’s presentation, he made a comment that drove home the importance of his research. He said, “We are all paying for the stimulus. If it doesn’t achieve its goals on the ground, we all lose.”
Article by Anne Emig. Photo by Alexa Mills.