Can anyone afford to wait?

Guest opinion by Ed Blackburn, published in the Oregonian, March 31 2009

Ed Blackburn is executive director of Central City Concern.

Why does a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness care about global warming? As fossil fuel prices continue to fluctuate and the costs of global warming mount, it’s clear that the fight to curb climate change needs to shift from “maybe someday” to “right away.” Preparing for the impact of global warming is no longer a luxury item, especially for safety net organizations such as Central City Concern.

Every year, Central City Concern provides vital services to more than 15,000 Oregonians — people struggling with some of life’s most serious challenges, including mental illness, addiction, and homelessness. We oversee more than 1,400 units of affordable housing in 22 buildings in Portland. Our power costs have risen dramatically over the last decade. Last year, we spent more than $1 million on gas and electricity alone.

To make sure we can continue providing services, we have begun to take serious action to lower our energy costs.

We are about to launch a major initiative to retrofit some of our old buildings to be more energy efficient and expect to reduce our energy needs by about 20 percent by the end of 2010 and reduce our carbon footprint by a total of 60 percent by 2020.

We have already begun with an extensive renovation of the historic Estate Hotel in downtown Portland, which houses single adults at high risk of homelessness. Even after adding two floors and an additional 38 units to the building, we were able to reduce our carbon footprint by 55 percent through a combination of energy efficiency measures and replacing oil heat with an efficient electric radiant system. After only seven months of operation, the newly renovated Estate Hotel has already offset 120 tons of CO2. We estimate these changes will reduce our utility bill by $25,000 a year.

Central City Concern is glad to see the Oregon Legislature begin to take serious action, too. The governor’s cap-and-trade proposal will help our state make the necessary and inevitable shift away from the volatile fossil fuels that cause global warming, pollute our environment and leave everyone vulnerable to energy price shocks. By providing $4 million to weatherize and retrofit the homes of 400 low-income families each year, Senate Bill 201 will help those most vulnerable to unstable energy costs. We also support legislation designed to make low-interest loans available to working families wanting to weatherize their homes — and insulate themselves from erratic energy costs.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s and President Barack Obama’s emphasis on creating green collar jobs could create new prospects for our clients, many of whom are seeking new skills, a second chance, and opportunities to give back to the community.

At Central City Concern, we have been committed to fostering hope among Portland’s most vulnerable people and creating strong, healthy neighborhoods for more than 30 years. More recently we have come to understand that, to truly serve our community, we must also do our part to protect our planet. Improving our building efficiency makes economic and moral sense.