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Extreme weather is our new normal. Resilient homes should be, too.

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Extreme weather is our new normal. Resilient homes should be, too.

Feb 20, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Joel Iboa
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Extreme weather is our new normal. Resilient homes should be, too.
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Like these trees on Barbur Boulevard and Naito, trees fell across Portland as a result of January storms.  (Courtesy of the Oregon Department of Transportation)

During last month’s winter storm, the weight of ice on trees and power lines called attention to the dangerous conditions across Oregon. In fact, January’s storm and frigid temperatures ravaged our state, leaving 15 people dead, hundreds of thousands without power and many homes damaged by downed trees. As someone who’s lived in Eugene my whole life, I’ve experienced the increasing frequency of extreme weather firsthand.

In fact, this kind of extreme weather is no longer an exception, it’s our reality. In 2020, the destructive wildfires raged across Oregon, killing 15 people, burning through more than 1 million acres, and destroying thousands of homes. A year later, an oppressive heat dome caused temperatures to soar to 118 degrees and left dozens of Oregonians dead in its wake. Between 2021 and 2022, nearly every Oregon county experienced severe drought. With the climate crisis worsening, this pattern of extreme weather is only expected to get worse.

Fast forward to January’s winter storm: Snow, ice, and power outages left about 150,000 residents from Polk to Columbia counties without power along with 40,000 people in Eugene, and some people waited days for the electricity to be turned back on.

Gov. Tina Kotek declared a state of emergency as neighbors risked leaving their homes to buy propane or water only to find out stores were out of essential supplies like firewood. As the winter storm worsened, I thought about how something as simple as a leaky roof could affect the comfort of a child.

Now that extreme weather is our new norm, it’s time that resilient, safe homes are, too. This legislative session, there’s rightly going to be a lot of discussion about building new housing. However, the recent winter storm made it disturbingly clear that we must improve current housing as well, especially for low-income families.

We have a lot of work to do. Nearly half of all Oregonians live in homes that were built before 1980. Poor insulation leaves many families vulnerable to extreme heat and cold, and inefficient appliances drive up utility bills to the point where some feel they have no choice but to leave them off. Frontline communities, including Black, Indigenous, people of color, low-income families, people with disabilities and people in rural areas are more likely to live in these outdated and often dilapidated homes, putting them at even greater risk during extreme weather events.

There’s good news: In 2021, the Legislature approved funding for the Healthy Homes Grant Program, supporting essential home repairs to keep low-income families healthy and reduce energy bills and medical costs. But as climate change makes our weather even more volatile and devastating, funding for this vital program is set to run out by 2025. That’s why a coalition that includes Oregon Just Transition Alliance, APANO, Verde, Oregon League of Conservation Voters and Fair Shot for All is urging the Legislature to invest $15 million this year to keep the Healthy Homes program going. In the second week of the session, a provision for some additional Healthy Homes funding was added to housing package SB 1530, which passed the Senate Committee on Housing and Development with unanimous, bipartisan support. As of publishing, it’s in the hands of the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

This coalition sees Healthy Homes as a way to keep seniors, low-income, and frontline families in their homes. It has the ability to make old homes more comfortable and liveable, it can lower utility bills, identify and address mold, radon and lead, better filter out air pollution and harden homes against extreme weather, wildfires and earthquakes, among other key improvements.

Already existing federal, state, and utility funding pays for some but not all of these repairs. For example, without funds to fix a leaky roof, a federally-funded heat pump would not help a low-income family thrive during another power outage. Healthy Homes fills in the gaps to help people live more comfortably during another extreme weather event.

An investment in Healthy Homes is an investment in housing security for our most vulnerable Oregonians. It’s time to meet the moment and ensure all families are safe when — not if — the next extreme weather event arrives.