U.S. green revolution knocks, but few answer in South Bronx

Sixth story in an occasional series about the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.

NEW YORK -- Politicians and environmentalists paint pretty pictures of a U.S. green-energy future with shiny electric cars, gleaming solar panels and whirring wind turbines.

But the future starts on a gritty South Bronx street where Jose Pichardo is going house-to-house in suffocating heat and humidity to make a pitch for energy efficiency.

Pichardo, 34, and a dozen or so other trainees in the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx weatherization program are making the rounds of the Hunts Point neighborhood, spreading the word about government grants to seal leaky windows and doors, provide power-saving light bulbs and insulate walls. They are foot soldiers in a $5 billion federal campaign derided by critics as "cash for caulkers."

The goal is to make houses and apartments energy efficient, saving residents thousands of dollars on heating and electric bills, relieving utilities of the burden of building new power plants and preventing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. There is also hope, organizers say, of creating "green jobs" to help end endemic unemployment and poverty here.

"Once they get to know what we're doing, they're more willing to let us inside," Pichardo said. "We're not asking for personal information. All we're asking for is a couple things about their house."

But trainees find those questions cannot be answered -- or asked -- before a door slams in your face.

Language barriers and fears that the weatherization trainees are federal immigration enforcement officers, census workers or sales people are making it difficult to gain inroads here. After knocking on nearly 50 doors all morning, the trainees had six people agree to listen and sign up for more information.

Still, Pichardo maintains a positive attitude and keeps handing out bilingual fliers. "We try to educate them so they know what's available for future reference, what they can try to get in terms of efficient kitchen appliances and stuff like that," the fast-talking father of two said.

Such perseverance is essential to the success of what many envision as a massive urban weatherization movement. Money from the U.S. Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), its most enthusiastic boosters say, might help transform urban America. President Obama's multibillion-dollar boost to the decades-old program is seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle inner-city unemployment, blight and health problems through a single initiative.


New York City is getting $40 million from the stimulus for home weatherization, almost 10 percent of the $452 million the law made available for such projects nationally.

But federal grants or no, it is going to be a long, hard slog.

When independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office released a three-year update on the city's PlaNYC sustainability initiative in April, for example, there were boasts about cleanup projects and tree planting but no benchmarked progress on weatherization retrofits in older residential buildings. And nonprofits that will carry out the work are still hiring new staff just to train a large influx of workers, experts say.

"I used to do these trainings once every other month. Now I do them every month," said Matt Dean, an instructor at the nonprofit Association for Energy Affordability (AEA), which hosts weatherization training and has been doing energy-efficiency training for more than a decade.

Dean, a weatherization instructor for five years, said enrollment has grown from fewer than 100 a year when he started to more than 500 after the 2009 federal stimulus law fattened the WAP budget. "A ton of people have been coming through these classes and getting placed," he said.

AEA is getting $5 million in stimulus cash, New York State's Department of Housing and Community Renewal said.

But smaller organizations like Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) are struggling to get their foot in the door as community colleges, better-established outfits like AEA and trade unions compete for the same funds. Most organizers say they are getting by on smaller grants from foundations.

"I'll be very honest, we have no government grants except for one small one," said Annette Williams, director of SSBx's BEST for Buildings Academy (BEST stands for Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training). "We rely on foundation grants and stuff like that for our programs to work, so we're now gearing up to go into all these other grants that we see coming in."

SSBx executive director Miquela Craytor said her agency's only direct link to federal funding is a $30,000 grant from the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau. Though BEST for Buildings is tailored toward the much larger federal Weatherization Assistance Program, SSBx only gains access to that money by sending its students to Dean's classes at AEA.

Craytor said she is determined to fight the bureaucracy and tap those funds directly. In the meantime, a budding partnership with the Manhattan-based Consortium for Worker Education, recently awarded a Pathway out of Poverty grant to host training in the South Bronx, holds more short-term promise.

Targeting pollution, unemployment

The son of Dominican immigrants, Pichardo was born in Washington Heights but grew up in Hunts Point, South Bronx, a neighborhood whose concentration of drugs and prostitution was highlighted in a 2002 HBO documentary. After an abbreviated stint at a Florida college, he returned to the Bronx and settled in Concourse Village, home of Yankee Stadium.

The stocky 5-foot-6 Pichardo happily held a string of odd jobs that allowed him to use his hands, until the Wall Street crash of 2008. He has been unemployed ever since.

So when there was an opportunity last year to enroll at the Apex Technical School in Manhattan for training as an electrician, Pichardo jumped at the chance. He has a little more than a year left of training ahead of him there.

He has also enrolled in the BEST for Buildings Academy for a four-month crash course in heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) and energy auditing. The course includes certification in asbestos removal and hazardous waste handling and OSHA's 10-hour safety training.

While some SSBx trainees have some hands-on experience in building work and construction, many come in cold, with a desire to find a new career path or to change their lives. SSBx acknowledges welcoming ex-convicts, anyone who passes an initial screening: a check for a high school diploma or GED, an assessment of writing and math skills, and an interview.

Eleven weeks into the 17-week program, two of 21 enrolled in Pichardo's class have dropped out of the program.

"These guys and girls that are in our training program fit the whole range of what this new 'green collar' job movement is," BEST director Williams said.

The weatherization push has two bottom lines. The first is to provide opportunities for full-time, long-term work in the Bronx, which has a 12.5 percent unemployment rate, one of the nation's highest. The second is providing a local environmental boost.

While the South Bronx has long had a reputation as one of the city's most dangerous boroughs -- Pichardo said he knew many who were afraid to walk alone even in daylight -- it is also considered one of the most polluted.

A hub of warehouses and freeway interchanges, Hunts Point is visited by some 20,000 large trucks a day, each of them spewing diesel fumes. The Bronx River was long treated as an open sewer. And rates of asthma and other health problems among South Bronx residents are worse than elsewhere in the city.

Pichardo said he was unaware until recently of his borough's environmental problems. "As many years as I've lived here, hung around here, played around here, I didn't know everything that was going on," he said.

Though safety is still a major problem, crime rates have fallen substantially. So much of the new community activism in the South Bronx is centered around greening the neighborhoods.

Founded in 2001, SSBx is the most famous member of a growing family of grassroots groups in the borough. The Point, Rocking the Boat and Friends of Brook Park all focus in part on community development and job growth through environmental education.

Number crunching

The BEST for Buildings program is not a cakewalk.

A few days after their door-to-door canvass, Pichardo and the other trainees assembled in Dean's classroom at AEA's offices near Randall Park for a lesson in measuring the volume of a house's air space.

Dean outlines a formula devised by the Building Performance Institute (BPI) to gauge indoor air flow.

The weatherization effort must comply with industry standards and codes for the air movements in and out of buildings to balance energy conservation with inhabitants' need for fresh air.

It is not a simple matter. The trainees are taught to check the BPI number against results of a test that involves blowing air from the front door to see its passage through the structure. They also learn how to factor in the number of residents.

The number-crunching belies the notion, Dean said, that the federal weatherization effort is purely about workers plugging leaky houses with epoxy.

"I get people who've been in weatherization for 30 years who know how to do all the work ... but they understand none of the stuff I just did today," Dean said. "I get a lot of former Wall Street people in here who cannot understand the math."

Days later, Dean's class tested what they had learned at a hard-to-insulate 1929 house in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Dean demonstrated how to comb through a house and note where light bulbs can be switched out with compact fluorescents. He also showed how to identify signs of dangerous buildups of nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide.

Aside from teaching complicated material to students with little schooling, Dean and others say there are sometimes run-ins with students who do not seem to know how to behave in classrooms.

"People usually are focused on learning these skills, but sometimes you do have a few bad apples, which makes it bad for everybody else," says Colleen Lott, a graduate of SSBx's gardens and parks program who now works as a field supervisor. "We're learning as we go, too."

Though the training program seems unlikely to survive without government support, weatherization-program backers insist it has a chance to be self-sufficient. Utilities would have an interest in keeping such efforts going, Dean and others said.

For his part, Pichardo, who graduates from BEST in a few weeks, said he would like to eventually set up his own energy-efficiency retrofit company. He maintains rising electricity prices will spur property owners to hire him to conduct energy audits and make their buildings more energy efficient.

But for now, all he is hoping for is a solid job. He is optimistic that certification as a professional electrician combined with the green jobs training at BEST will get him there.

"They're talking about constant jobs for the next three to five years, and that's just with homeowners," Pichardo said. "It's going to change the employment rate. Instead of like the census program that's only a temporary fix this is going to be a bigger way of doing it."

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