In 2009, when the Illinois General Assembly created the Urban Weatherization Initiative, the goals were clear – $425 million in taxpayer money would go to train an army of workers in predominately African-American neighborhoods across the state to identify and fix energy-efficiency problems in homes.
Gov. Pat Quinn signs into law the bill containing the Urban Weatherization Initiative in 2009. / www.illinois.gov
The aim, aside from putting people to work in struggling areas: Cut down on utility bills for lower-income households, and help the environment.
Five years later, the Better Government Association found the program – a pet project of the Legislative Black Caucus, and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn and run by his Department of Commerce and Economic Development – in disarray, with more than $16 million spent, mostly on training, just 183 homes upgraded and few people actually working.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) / www.ilga.gov
By now, backers had wanted thousands drawing paychecks and more than 1,000 homes improved with, among other things, weather stripping, caulking, insulation and new natural gas water heaters.
Even some original supporters of the program admit they're disappointed with the outcome and wonder whether it should be mothballed or revamped.
"I wouldn't give it the highest marks, because our goal was to put people to work and to train people," said state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), an architect of the weatherization program and a member of the Black Caucus.
Among the BGA's findings:
- Although the legislation was signed in July 2009, worker training didn't begin until 2011 and no homes were improved until spring 2014 – three years after proponents of the weatherization program had anticipated.
- Of the $16 million spent so far, more than $13 million went toward administrative costs and training, with at least 1,900 people trained as inspectors or laborers, but just a fraction of them drawing a paycheck because so little work has been embarked on.
- Just 183 homes have been completed, even though the Chicago Jobs Council had expected at least 1,000 homes would have been improved so far. State officials said with their current workforce, 1,200 homes should be improved over two years.
- The workers who are drawing checks are being paid way beyond their skill set – up to $49 an hour. With each home limited to $6,500 in repairs, much of the money goes to pay workers rather than making impactful home improvements.
- While a state legislator, Marlow Colvin voted for the bill. Later, his wife Carmen Colvin ended up being hired by the Quinn administration to run the weatherization project, along with a volunteer board appointed by the governor. A Quinn aide said Carmen Colvin was hired for her qualifications, not her clout. She would not comment.
"We are disappointed with the program's outcomes," said Steve Simmons, senior policy associate with the Chicago Jobs Council, a nonprofit that helps low-income job seekers, and has been one of the program's biggest advocates.
Simmons is not alone – many of the workers who were trained as part of the program and had high hopes for making a living through weatherization said they were left high and dry.
West suburban resident Roy Waller, 64, has spent the last year looking for work, after taking weatherization training courses in 2013. He said the instruction was excellent, but no one helped him transition into employment.
"It's a real shame. I can see the vision of the program. It's just a real shame it wasn't carried out," Waller said.
Here's how the program was designed: The governor appointed an urban weatherization board, which authorizes grant money for nonprofits and local governments. The grant money was to come from bonds issued by the state – up to $425 million. The nonprofits and local governments, in turn, use the money to train two categories of workers – auditors, who identify energy-efficiency problems in homes, and weatherization specialists, who, in theory, go to work for local contractors hired by the nonprofits and vetted by the state, and perform work on homes.
But, while the program began training workers two years after it was created, it didn't start work on homes until earlier in 2014.
For years, Simmons said the Chicago Jobs Council unsuccessfully lobbied the weatherization board, administrators, Black Caucus members and the Quinn administration to start authorizing work, because the CJC was afraid workers were being trained for nothing.
It's unclear how many trainees are currently working; state officials said they don't have those figures. But those interviewed by the BGA agree that a small percentage of those trained are now drawing a check.
Even at the Illinois YouthBuild Coalition in Rockford, which is considered one of the more successful nonprofits in the program, things haven't been smooth. Of the 54 people trained, 30 went on to pass state certification tests. Of those, 15 found construction-related work, continued their education, or started their own business. Just two, though, are working on homes paid for by the state.
The weatherization board chairman, Percy Harris of East St. Louis, said the program was slow to start work on homes, in part, because the board was being careful and deliberate in how money was spent.
"There's still some work to do. Let's put it that way. But I don't think it's been a failure by any stretch of the imagination," Harris said.
Ford was more critical. "We mastered the training, but we struggled with the hiring," he said.
Quinn has taken heat for another controversial grant program, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a $54.5 million anti-violence program rife with alleged waste and abuse, with critics saying it was nothing more than an election-year get-out-the-vote incentive.
State-government spokesman David Roeder said the weatherization program should not draw the same criticisms. "This program was set up with a great deal of oversight," he said, insisting that, while things have moved slowly, money was not wasted, and the program is poised to complete several hundred more homes in coming months.
Another hiccup with the program involved the wage rate.
State Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago) / www.ilga.gov
When the program was created, supporters expected workers would make around $20 an hour. But, program creators failed to realize workers needed to be paid under the state's Prevailing Wage Act. Because there's no specific category for weatherization, these relatively unskilled workers were equated to skilled carpenters – and are now making up to $49 an hour.
State Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), another earlier weatherization supporter in the General Assembly, said the program will stop training people soon. He'd like to see work finished on the homes the state has already committed to fixing, and find a new way to get trainees working.
He sees the weatherization effort in its current form lasting two more years, at most. But Trotter said he wouldn't call it a failure because despite all the program's problems, people were trained.
"Once you've been educated, they can't take that from you," Trotter said.
But that doesn't necessarily guarantee a paycheck, as Waller can attest.
Asked what he's been doing for the past year while waiting for someone with the weatherization initiative to utilize his skills, Waller said, "Basically I've been working on my own house."