PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The City of Brotherly Love is tackling rising unemployment and improving the energy efficiency of homes by training people to weatherize its estimated 400,000 low-income row houses.
Edward Abraham, 28, is one of Philadelphia's first class of 20 "weatherization" trainees who are learning how to install insulation, caulk windows, seal basements and assess fuel usage in city houses.
During a four-week program that started in mid-April, the trainees learned skills to earn a living meeting the increased demand for energy efficiency. They are trained in 19th- and early 20th-century row houses and at a training center in the city.
The program, run by the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), a private nonprofit, is part of the city's new "Greenworks Philadelphia" sustainability plan that aims to boost areas such as recycling, renewable energy and emissions control while creating "green-collar" jobs in a tough economy.
Over the next five years, the city aims to weatherize 100,000 row homes.
For Abraham, a former self-employed carpenter now working for his GED high school diploma, the program has rescued him from unemployment and homelessness.
After his work ran out in September 2008, Abraham was evicted from his apartment and lived in a homeless shelter for two months. He is optimistic that he will be able to make a career with his new skills.
"There's going to be a lot of leakage in these row houses," he said. "There's always going to be a lot of work."
Trainees who successfully complete the program and prove their competence will be hired by ECA or by other organizations doing the same work.
Weatherizing a row house in north Philadelphia costs about $2,000. Philadelphia Gas Works, a local utility that already covers most of the fuel cost for the homeowner who qualifies for low-income heating assistance will pay for the work, said Ken Hoke, an inspector with the weatherization program.
John Beiderman, a 43-year-old single parent, applied for a trainee position on the program after losing his job as a cook last year.
"Everybody in this city could use this," he said. "People need educating."
David Williams, 56, a retired firefighter who owns a home in the northeast section of the city, said he expects to save 30-40 percent on his heating bill of about $600 a month as a result of the program. He is replacing drafty old windows with new airtight models.
ECA will pay for the new windows and other repairs to Williams' house. It gets about a third of its income from clients like the gas utility and the remainder from federal funds, which are expected to increase significantly when federal stimulus dollars start flowing, said Hoke.
He added that ECA expects federal funding to enable it to double the number of houses it can weatherize this year.
Outside Williams's home, trainee Steven Faison, 43, said he enjoys the instant benefits of weatherizing a house.
"You can feel the difference in a house even while you're there," Faison said. "People are so appreciative."