More than 20 percent of America’s carbon emissions come from residential buildings.1 American homes, especially those built before 1970, contribute to carbon pollution through inefficiencies in energy use that burden the climate, the taxpayer, and American households.
Because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) directly and indirectly subsidizes utility costs for its low-income program participants, the federal government spends nearly $6.5 billion on residential energy costs each year.2 These costs reduce the limited resources that might otherwise fund housing and services for the growing number of American renter households paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent.3
Whereas average rents in apartments increased by less than eight percent between 2001 and 2009, energy costs for those renters increased by nearly 23 percent.4 Low-income women are especially affected, since nearly 80 percent of HUD-assisted households are headed by females.5 Beyond easing the financial strain on these households, lowering energy costs through efficiency retrofits and holistic planning brings job opportunities and improvements to resident health and safety.6
Against this backdrop, it is fitting that women at HUD and in the affordable housing sector are focused on increasing energy efficiency in affordable housing at every level—from working with residents at affordable housing projects to developing policy at the federal level. Meet five women working to make affordable homes more energy efficient.
Mara Blitzer, senior policy advisor to the head of HUD’s Office of Multifamily Housing, has a varied background in affordable real estate housing development. She exemplifies the cross-sector collaboration necessary to move the needle on energy efficiency.
“I usually say that I work in affordable housing development,” Blitzer says, “then I add ‘with a focus on energy efficiency’.” Blitzer’s work includes the Better Buildings Challenge, a federal initiative spearheaded by the US Department of Energy to encourage and help commercial and residential property owners bring down energy consumption. While HUD is increasingly placing emphasis on this important goal, the siloed nature of federal policy work still presents a challenge.
“My biggest challenge has been being the only person in my division or organization that is tasked with energy efficiency goals. That can be lonely,” says Blitzer. “I’ve needed to compensate by finding a professional network outside of my home base to find compatriots with whom I can share strategies and successes.”
Networking is very important to professional success in this field generally, and these women stressed the importance of connecting with other women in the field to furthering their work and careers.
Ophelia Basgal, currently HUD’s regional administrator in San Francisco, served previously as the vice president of community relations for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), one of the USA’s largest utilities. “While my career in energy was in a non-technical role, my biggest challenge was learning the complexities of service delivery,” she said, “I had tremendous mentors in the company that helped me overcome that hurdle.”
Basgal stresses the importance of mentorship for women in energy. “I applaud any formal or informal mentoring opportunity, especially woman to woman opportunities as the industry leaderships tends to be dominated by men,” she said, speaking of WiE’s pilot e-mentoring program for women. “Everyone benefits when women are well represented in the leadership of any industry. Building knowledge and support through collaboration with others is key to building that leadership representation.”
Blitzer agrees. “I think networking and mentorship are key to attracting women to the energy sector and helping them progress,” she said. “For those of us who are already where we want to be, we can spot and encourage those who are similarly passionate about the work. Organizationally, we need to create spaces where employees are comfortable asking for what they want and what they need.”
That organizational change starts with leadership, but it’s ultimately about “pushing that leadership down,” says Linda Mandolini, the executive director of Eden Housing, a developer providing affordable housing for more than 65,000 residents in California. Although Eden has been at the forefront of energy efficiency in affordable multifamily housing since the 1970s, to fully align the company’s social values with cost concerns took buy-in from every level of the staff. Mandolini also stresses the importance of figuring out how to help women stay in high-level roles and have families. While many employers have made great strides in this field, “we have not yet figured this out.”
Crystal Bergemann, senior energy analyst with HUD’s Office of Economic Resilience, and Monica Watkins, the director of energy and environmental programs at the Housing Authority of Baltimore County (HABC), exemplify the challenge of maintaining thriving home and professional lives in workplaces that are not structured with that balance in mind.
Bergemann has a two-year-old and a four-month-old at home. “It’s hard to leave for work in the morning sometimes!” she said. “But I want my children to see that I’m making a difference on an issue I care about: making homes more energy efficient and increasing access to clean energy for all Americans.”
Watkins leveraged her background in engineering and finance to build the HABC’s first Energy Department. With that department, Watkins executed a $56 million energy conservation initiative across 3,700 low-income residential units. She has done all this as single mother. “My early years as a swim mom and then later as a basketball mom were the most challenging to keep the balance. There was always time carved out for a PTA night, fundraisers, swim meets, and then basketball tournaments. Achieving this on a relatively successful scale meant I had to be organized, strategic and forgiving of myself and others when things didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t perfect, however when I look back over it all I have to say I was able to achieve the career success and the parental success I wanted.”
“To keep women in the workforce I believe they need to have schedule flexibility,” says Watkins. “To assist talented women in advancing further and faster up the career ladder I would recommend identifying the relevant skill set in these women and then pairing them up with the right project or opportunity to show case their skills. Give them credit for handling difficult tasks and help them build the confidence they need to continue advancing in their careers.”
Since women are under-represented in energy, men play a key role in opening doors for women in the field. “You’re not going to be very successful if the leaders of your industry only represent a tiny sliver of the overall demographic you’re trying to reach,” said Bergemann. “Because energy issues affect all of us, we need to be inclusive and diverse in our leadership in the sector, or we’ll never have the far reaching impact we want to see. That means making space for women’s voices, but also other underrepresented voices like those belonging to people of color and low-income communities.”
Basgal speaks proudly of the work that women at HUD and the nonprofit housing sector have achieved in not only increasing energy efficiency in affordable housing, but also promoting energy conservation with the families who reside in the units. “Hopefully we’ve been good role models for women who are interested in the myriad of opportunities available in the energy fields, whether it’s energy policy, research, delivery of energy services, or actually installing solar panels! All of us look forward to other women joining us in these efforts.”
1 Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard Univ., The State of the Nation’s Housing 2015. http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/jchs.harvard.edu/files/jchs-sonhr-2015-ch6.pdf.
2 U.S. Dep’t of Housing & Urban Dev., FY 2013 Annual Performance Report/FY 2015 Annual Performance Plan. http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/documents/huddoc?id=HUD_FY13APR_FY15APP.PDF.
3 The State of the Nation’s Housing 2015, supra note 1.
4 U.S. Dep’t of Housing & Urban Dev., “Quantifying Energy Efficiency in Multifamily Rental Housing,” Evidence Matters, Summer 2011. http://www.huduser.org/portal/periodicals/em/summer11/highlight1.html.
5 U.S. Dep’t of Housing & Urban Dev., Picture of Subsidized Households 2013. http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/picture/yearlydata.html.
6 Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, The Benefits of Energy Efficiency in Multifamily Affordable Housing. https://www.db.com/usa/docs/DBLC_Recognizing_the_Benefits_of_Efficiency_Part_B_1.10.pdf.