The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
— President Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009
As we enter the mid-term elections, just twenty-one months since Barack Obama took the podium for the first time as President of the United States, voters are stepping back to assess what is working and not working during this era of intense economic uncertainty.
Lately, the media has been all over the Stimulus. Did it work? Did it not work? Was it the right medicine? Was it not enough of the right medicine? Or, was it the wrong medicine?
Critics of the Stimulus point to the ten percent national unemployment rate, while defenders say that we would be much worse off without it. Last week, the President and Vice President pointed to a few projects as evidence of the Stimulus’s impact. Today, Vice President Biden released a full report that details over 100 ARRA-funded projects and programs that are creating jobs and growing the economy.
A week ago, the Atlantic Monthly published an article which explained in layman’s terms the design of the stimulus. The author, Derek Thompson, broke the $787 billion stimulus down into three categories:
1. tax cuts – a means for keeping more dollars in peoples pockets (~1/3 of funds)
2. “the big fill” – a means for filling existing state and federal budget shortfalls (~1/2 of funds)
3. “fun stuff”– a means for building new infrastructure and investing in green (~1/6 of funds)
Given the dispersed nature of ARRA, it can be easy for us regular citizens to say that the Stimulus didn’t actually do anything. The great majority of the funds went toward recovery – tax cuts and and propping up of existing programs (Medicaid, unemployment, Social Security, student financial aid, etc) – where it is almost impossible to see direct outcomes. How does one comprehend the full benefit of filling thousands of fiscal holes all over the country?
So… now the “fun stuff” is getting all the attention. Why? Because we can point to fun stuff. “Hooray for project X that created Y jobs!” Or conversely, “Boo on project X that only created Y jobs!”
Yet, many projects under “fun stuff” are just getting off the ground. This is where the reinvestment part of ARRA comes into play, where government invests in future-focused programs that can potentially conjure things like: high-speed rail, digital medical records, and the green economy.
Under the category of “fun stuff,” ARRA allocated over $20 billion to building energy efficiency programs. This represents the largest ever federal investment in energy efficiency. The surge in funds was meant to help jump-start the building retrofit market and the much anticipated green collar economy. The large majority of this money was funneled to city and state governments through the Department of Energy or the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
How far will this single shot of funds take us? How much carbon will we capture? How many good green jobs will we create? How many private dollars will we leverage?
Cities across the country are now launching and implementing pilot retrofit programs that aim to answer these questions. With ARRA funds they intend to demonstrate the true costs and benefits of investing in energy efficiency.
Over the past year, CoLab worked with MIT alumnus, Benjamin Brandin, to help “leverage the stimulus” for low-income communities in Massachusetts and to better understand the opportunities and challenges in creating large-scale retrofit programs. Working with the community partners and the Emerald Cities Collaborative, Ben wrote his 2010 masters thesis on re-envisioning a retrofit strategy for Oakland, California.
In order to further articulate and illustrate the lessons of his thesis, Ben worked with Colab to create a guide called, “City Scale Retrofits: Learning from Portland and Oakland.”This guide explores how municipal agencies and neighborhood institutions can work together to build a robust, sustainable retrofit market that delivers on the promises of lower carbon emissions, energy cost savings, and job creation.
Here, we present two ARRA funded city-scale retrofit programs outlining the basic components of each program and how it deals with the issues of financial sustainability, scalability, and equity. We look at how decisions about program structure and process lead to different outcomes in terms of which buildings get retrofitted, how they are retrofitted, and by whom.
This guide is one of several products generated through the Collaborative Thesis Project.
Post by Amy Stitely, U.S. Green Hub Program Director at CoLab. Amy works with MIT Master in City Planning students on shaping their academic research to generate practical knowledge about how to build a more equitable economy.