WATCH: Sen. Kelly Pushes for Affordable Housing Reform and Expansion of Weatherization Assistance for Arizonans Vulnerable to Extreme Heat

Yesterday, during a Senate Aging Committee hearing, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly questioned housing experts on how the federal government can remove barriers to affordable housing construction and better deploy weatherization assistance to homeowners and renters that are vulnerable to extreme heat. As Arizona copes with housing shortages and record-breaking heat, Kelly emphasized the urgency of updating affordable housing guidelines and making weatherization resources available to Arizonans, specifically seniors, most at risk.  

The Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) reduces out-of-pocket energy costs for low-income households by improving home energy efficiency through insulation, energy-efficient windows, efficient air conditioners, and more. In addition to WAP funding made available through annual appropriations bills, the Kelly-shaped Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included an additional $3.16 billion, of which Arizona will receive $47.5 million. During the hearing, Kelly pressed the witnesses for strategies to streamline deployment of these funds and urged the federal government to support zoning reforms that enable creative affordable housing solutions, such as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), commonly known in Arizona as “casitas.”  

Sen. Kelly discusses strategies to boost affordable housing and streamline housing weatherization funding in Senate Aging Committee hearing

Click here to watch Sen. Kelly’s full remarks. See below for a complete transcript: 

Sen. Kelly: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Dr. Schuetz, Ms. Cannington, Mr. Wajda, and Ms. Howell, thank you all for being here today. This is a very important issue. 

This question is for Dr. Schuetz. My state of Arizona is currently dealing with a rather historic heat wave. Multiple days in a row in Phoenix the temperature has hit at least 110 degrees. The other day, when I was there, it was 118. It’s been above 110 pretty much every day of the month here in July, and the National Weather Service indicates that temperatures are going to remain above average for the rest of the month. You’ve probably seen some of these headlines.   

I expect you’ve also seen headlines on the study that found out that if there’s a blackout in Phoenix during a heat wave, 50 percent of the city’s population could possibly need emergency medical attention. Phoenix is in Maricopa County which has about half the population of the state—so over 3 million people.  

Now, we are fortunate that Phoenix has a pretty strong electrical grid. But these extreme weather events are happening more frequently. And the low temperatures aren’t really that low anymore, and we know that older adults are at risk due to extreme heat.  

If you’re in an older home, you’re more likely not to have air conditioning. We’ve seen that last week with some individuals. You’re also not likely to have effective insulation in an older home, you’re not likely to have window shading–all of which can become very dangerous in these times of extreme heat.  

The federal government, by the way, supports weatherization assistance, which can make homes safer and better prepared to respond to extreme weather events.  

But Dr. Schuetz, are we maximizing the use of those resources from the federal government that support weatherization assistance?   

Dr. Schuetz: That’s a great question. Thanks, Senator Kelly. The short answer is no. We’re not doing a great job of getting the weatherization money into the hands of people who need it and into homes to provide all the sorts of adaptive features that you mentioned. We talked before the recess that there are a number of ways that, in general, home retrofits could be made easier.  

The weatherization program is undersubscribed. A lot of people who would be eligible for assistance don’t know that they’re eligible and don’t apply. It’s a very onerous process to apply and get access to that—to go through the screening process for income, to have the home energy audit done. So, thinking about ways to make that easier to access. 

This also should work nicely with some of the funding from the Inflation Reduction Act that’s more focused on energy efficiency. But the two of those things together. Things like insulation and replacing windows and doors, upgrading heating and cooling systems—particularly cooling systems in Arizona—those are really important for making the homes safer and healthier for people, and bringing down energy usage so that people are spending less on their energy bill and the system stays current.  

Sen. Kelly:Have there been any surveys done to try to determine what percentage of the population that’s eligible even know that these programs exist? 

Dr. Schuetz:I would have to look to see. The programs are pretty undersubscribed. Each state administers the Weatherization Assistance Program a little bit differently. And so some states have been more proactive about doing outreach. Maryland has done quite a lot of that to encourage people who are eligible to know about it.  

But that’s a great question. I can look up those figures for you.  

Sen. Kelly:Okay, thank you. Dr. Schuetz, on a different but somewhat related subject, one of the things I hear from affordable housing stakeholders all the time is the need for zoning reform to allow for some creative solutions to build new affordable housing. I had some folks in my office just yesterday including a woman who has been homeless. We were discussing how we get more affordable housing in the state of Arizona.  

One of the suggestions that came up was something that Tucson, Arizona did locally, was allowing for the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on single-family properties. But that’s not state-wide.  

These independent living situations are popular and carry a lot of benefits – including proximity to family caregivers to support older adults and individuals with disabilities. 

Dr. Schuetz, in your testimony I understand you highlighted how zoning rules that “prohibit all structures except single-family detached homes create direct barriers to building accessible homes.” Recognizing that so much of housing policy happens at a state and local level, can you expand on your recommendations for how the federal government can support or incentivize state and local efforts to pursue zoning reform? 

Dr. Schuetz:Absolutely. There’s actually a lot of experimentation going on at the state and local level. Places like Tucson, states like Utah that have been doing state-level reform. One of the really useful things that HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] could do is keep track of all the reforms that are going on, make sure that the lessons we’re learning for what works and what doesn’t in different housing markets is accessible. Providing really simple, straightforward guidance. If you want to make ADU’s work, here is a two-pager on the do’s and don’ts. So that state and local officials can get access to that. 

There’s a lot of interest by elected officials at the state and local level in learning more about how this works and there isn’t really a good source of information or technical assistance. That would be a very easy thing that HUD could do more of in combination with targeting some of the transportation and infrastructure funds to encourage more zoning reform.  

Sen. Kelly:We could probably do that even without legislation, I would think. Just encouraging HUD to do that.  

So, I’ll make sure that my staff works with you and that we try to address this issue. Thank you.