Women in Energy Story Telling: Mr Imron Bhatti

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.

Imron Bhatti is a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Among his varied workload, Imron has supported efforts to incentivize owners of affordable rental housing to make energy efficient upgrades.


Mara Blitzer
Mara Blitzer is Senior Policy Advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Multifamily Housing Programs at the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Her work consists of advising the Secretary regarding energy, senior housing, and homelessness policies in addition to supporting the Director of the Program Administration Office in efforts to approach policy development in a strategic and transparent manner and to make multifamily programs and services responsive to stakeholder feedback. Prior to starting government service, Mara worked for fifteen years as a developer of affordable and supportive housing in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City.

Ophelia Basgal
Ophelia Basgal is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California Terner Center for Housing Innovation and a senior executive coach with InclusionINC, a leading global consulting organization specializing in inclusion and diversity solutions. Prior to her current positions, she was the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Region IX Regional Administrator from May 2010 to March 2016 overseeing a staff of 700 serving the states of Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada and the outer Pacific islands. Before joining HUD, she was Vice President of Community Relations at PG&E where she managed the company’s $20 million charitable contributions program and oversaw the company’s community engagement programs, partnerships with community-based organizations, and employee volunteerism program for 20,000+ employees. Her current professional and community service includes the Board of Retirement of the Alameda County Employees’ Retirement Association, the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Foundation, the Board of Trustees of Mills College and the Public Policy Institute Statewide Leadership Council. She holds a master’s degree in social welfare administration from the University of California.

Crystal Bergemann
Crystal Bergemann is the Energy Team Lead in HUD’s Office of Economic Resilience where she works to embed sustainable and green building policies and practices into HUD’s portfolio. Additionally, she is HUD’s program lead on the Renew300 initiative, which is a goal of increasing onsite renewable energy capacity in federally assisted housing nine-fold by 2020. Crystal has a background in energy and water policy, and received a Master of Public Administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

Linda Mandolini
Linda Mandolini has served as President of Eden Housing for 16 years, with prior positions as Director of Real Estate Development and Project Developer. Under her strong leadership, Eden Housing has become one of the most productive and successful nonprofit affordable housing developers in California. Linda oversees affordable housing production, resident support services, and property management, and a staff of 382 employees.

Since Linda became President, the organization has received numerous awards including being named as one of the Best Places to Work in the Bay Area in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and Healthiest Employers in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Journal for the past six years in a row (2012-2017).

Linda is a leader in housing policy on the local, state and national level. She serves or has served on the Boards of: The Housing Trust of Silicon Valley, Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), California Housing Consortium (CHC), National Housing Conference (NHC), Make Room, Enterprise Communities’ Community Leadership Council, and International Housing Policy Exchange.

Linda held various community development positions in Boston prior to moving to California in 1996.

Linda was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2017 and has been honored with the 2016 SF Business Times Forever Influential Honor Roll, 2015 SF Business Times “Bay Area’s Most Influential Women” award, 2014 SF Business Times “Bay Area’s Most Influential Women” award, 2011 SF Business Times “Bay Area’s Most Influential Women” award, 2011 SF Business Times “Northern California Real Estate Women of Influence” award, 2011 Affordable Housing Management Association (AHMA) Pioneer Award, and 2008 East Bay Business Times “Women of Distinction” award.

Linda received her A.B. from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, and earned an M.B.A. at Boston University. In her free time, Linda is an avid bicyclist and frequently rides for charitable causes.

Monica Watkins
Monica Watkins holds both an MBA in Finance from Loyola College as well as a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland College Park. She is also a 1989 graduate of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Monica has over 18 years of local utility experience in the areas of gas engineering & construction, energy accounting & billing and electric policy, rates & regulations. Additionally, Ms. Watkins is a member of the Association of Energy Engineers, a Certified Energy Manager (CEM) and a Certified Measurement and Verification Professional (CMVP). She has presented case studies and papers on HABCs energy performance contracting initiatives and resident energy awareness and conservation programs at both the World Energy Engineering Congress and for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Since September 2006, Monica has overseen energy and environmental projects. These projects range in complexity from simple lighting and water measures to complex heating distribution replacement and Building Energy Management Systems. Her department is responsible for managing and monitoring HABC’s (1) energy consumption and utilities costs; (2) security initiatives; (3) construction inspection services; and (4) lead and asbestos monitoring. Monica manages a staff of 19 who are responsible for energy performance contracting initiatives; Closed Circuit TV camera installations & analysis; environmental monitoring, analysis & abatement; the monitoring and inspection of all construction activities; and, utility analysis & energy conservation. The primary mission of Monicas department is to reduce energy and water consumption; and improve environmental conditions for our residents. As such, a key component of the departments responsibility is installing, maintaining and monitoring utility sub metering. Under Monica’s leadership the agency has successfully transitioned over 3000 residents to a energy consumption management system that details their daily electric usage. Future initiatives include submetering both gas and water utilities where feasible. To assist in this transition Monica’s staff regularly engage the resident population with monthly utility usage surveys, resident meetings, and even a video production to encourage residents to be mindful of their consumption.