Action Housing: A Whole-Home Repairs Administrator Supporting Communities Since 1957

Pittsburgh-based Action Housing is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a long history in southwest Pennsylvania. Founded in 1957, they now use a $130 million operating budget to employ almost 150 people. Their mission? To ensure decent and affordable housing in Allegheny and neighboring counties.

“We’re the region’s largest nonprofit low-income housing developer,” said Dan Sullivan, Action Housing’s Housing Stabilization Program Manager. “We’re the state’s largest weatherization provider. We’ve specialized in affordable housing since our inception, running anything from development to property management to eviction prevention. Our real focus is to make sure that everyone in Allegheny County and the counties that we operate in has a place that’s safe and that they can call home.”

Energy Efficiency Stories sat down with Dan to talk about Whole-Home Repairs, a groundbreaking critical repairs program with huge energy-saving implications. Since the program became law in 2022, Action Housing has administered Whole-Home Repairs in Allegheny County.

Whole-Home Repairs and Energy Efficiency

“Whole-Home Repairs is filling a current gap that we’ve never had resources for in Allegheny County,” Dan told us, “which is essential safety and habitability repairs for homes occupied by low- and moderate-income families. It is, I think, the most effective way to ensure that those households that are most at risk of losing their home due to a lack of maintenance and deterioration of the property can remain in the place that they call home.”

Allegheny County residents apply to get help through Action Housing’s online portal. If their application is selected, Action Housing coordinates with local contractors to deliver critical repairs rendering the house safe, stable, and livable. Those repairs can include roof repair, HVAC upgrades, accessibility improvements, mold remediation, and more.

Allegheny County’s older housing stock and wet, cold climate create unique maintenance and efficiency concerns.  “I’d say probably some of the range of 70%, if not more, of the 150-odd homes that we’ve done have had roof replacements, window replacements, door replacements, slushing of foundations to seal them,” says Dan. “And we do a fair amount of new and upgraded HVAC and heating and cooling systems.”

While Whole-Home Repairs isn’t explicitly an efficiency program, the energy-saving implications of Action Housing’s repairs are still huge. “You have homes at a hundred years old, plus you have homes that have had almost zero maintenance,” Dan explains. “The mechanical systems, HVAC systems, ductwork, furnaces, everything, are usually outdated. And the envelopes to these homes are poor. Everything leaks. Whole-Home Repairs creates energy efficiency units by sealing the envelope, removing environmental hazards within the house, and upgrading heating and cooling systems.”

Allegheny County homeowner Kelly Scatena testifies about Whole-Home Repairs to the PA Senate Policy Committee in February 2024. 

The repairs Action Housing executes aren’t necessarily cutting-edge technology, but they do often reduce residents’ utility bills. The projects create energy efficiency by sealing the building while stabilizing the house by addressing structural issues. These improvements make a big financial difference in a city like Pittsburgh, which ranked sixth in the nation for households struggling with high energy burdens. A household with a high energy burden spends a large portion of its income on energy, and in Allegheny County as elsewhere, high energy burdens especially affect senior citizens, low- and moderate-income families, and families of color.

Supporting Communities And Fighting Blight

Getting help through Whole-Home Repairs has huge implications for Allegheny County residents like Kelly Scatena, an Action Housing client who testified at a February 3rd Policy Committee Hearing in favor of the Whole-Home Repairs program. “Now we can actually look forward to retirement knowing we have a place to live,” she said after Action Housing delivered critical roof and foundation repairs. “We can picture growing old here and having the grandkids here too.”

Her testimony reflects the reality of housing conditions in Allegheny County. Residents wish to remain in the neighborhoods they’ve raised families in, but critical repair needs and an affordable housing shortage mean many face an impossible choice. If they stay, they face unsafe living conditions and high energy burdens. If they leave, the buildings left behind risk becoming blighted and falling off local property tax rolls.

While Whole-Home Repairs does help individual homeowners, Dan tells us, it’s even more important that it halts and reverses this process to create positive outcomes for entire communities: “It’s the health and safety of neighbors. It increases land value and property value. There’s benefits for taxing bodies and school districts and municipal services. Especially in hard-hit, marginalized LMI communities, I think it’s a great way to reinvest and reinvigorate the economies of these communities.”

Growing Local Businesses

Whole-Home Repairs wouldn’t accomplish much without Action Housing’s partner contractors—local businesses with the skills to do work like roof repairs, HVAC upgrades, and window replacements. Action Housing works with twelve partner contracting businesses, eight of whom are WMBE’s (Women- or Minority-owned Business Enterprises).

Dan explained that Action Housing was deliberate and thoughtful in cultivating their contractor relationships, looking for community-focused businesses and implementing procedures to make timely payments and ensure a steady stream of work. The resulting group of contractors is uniquely well-suited to doing Whole-Home Repairs work, with experience in maintenance-deferred buildings and a devotion to serving their communities.

The partnership has been a fruitful one for both Action Housing and its partners. “Every single contractor that we’ve hired has had to add laborers,” Dan told us. “Many of our contractors now have more back office staff.” Action Housing helps these companies grow by connecting them with local workforce development resources: “We’re under contract with six organizations that really do soup-to-nuts workforce development, collectively. So it’s labor training, it’s skilled labor training, it’s back office staff, it’s licensing, it’s accreditations, it’s certifications, and all of that. And all of our contractors to one degree or another have engaged in that process.”

Like most energy efficiency jobs, these positions can’t be outsourced, and they all contribute to the local Allegheny County economy.

What Comes Next

An Allegheny County native himself, Dan told us he cares about other social and community investment initiatives happening in the region, too—“But none of the other big-picture things happen unless folks have a place to live that they can stay in and put down roots. Folks want to do that,” he continued. “They do not wanna leave these communities. And I think we’re obligated to do everything we can to make sure that they don’t have to.”

So what comes next for Action Housing? Dan tells us they’re waiting to see what additional funding can help them continue administering the Whole-Home Repairs program. So far, interest has far exceeded the funding available. Dan told us: “The first phase that we ran in the summer of last year, we got 4,000 applications. The second phase that we offered in the fall, got another 200 applications. And we only have enough funding to do overall about 200 to 250 homes. Which means a deferral rate of about 97% of the applicants who are income-eligible and occupancy-eligible, but won’t get work done because there’s a lack of funding.”

In the future, he hopes to see reliable funding that could help Action Housing chip away at the backlog of eligible homes: “If you get 20, 25 million, again and again and again, you get there. Right? And the infrastructure is set up here. The capacity is set up here; we don’t have to build anything new. We could pump out job after job after job.”

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Success story from: Action Housing
Added to the EE Stories website on: March 17, 2024

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