Last week the House of Representatives passed legislation aimed at pulling the hard-hit construction industry out of depression. With over 2 million jobs lost in the construction trades since 2006 and an unemployment rate of about 25%, now is the time for Congress to act. The bi-partisan legislation (H.R. 5019), known as Home Star or "Cash for Caulkers," would rapidly bring $6 billion to the residential contracting and home performance industries while providing substantial energy efficiency rebates and financing options for homeowners.
I know what you're thinking -- do we really need more government action? Months ago, when I first considered the Home Star legislation, I was also skeptical. In fact, I was pretty opposed to the idea. This is the story of why I changed my mind.
In March, we hosted Jared Asch, the National Director of Efficiency First (a trade organization supporting the Home Star legislation), at the Populus offices in Boulder, Colorado. Not always the most charming of hosts, I have to admit I heckled him a bit (sorry, Jared). You have to understand that like most people these days, I'm hesitant about more government spending. And, like all small business owners, I worry about what an influx of spending in my industry might mean for the little guy. In Boulder, like towns all across America, we like to keep it local -- local beer, local farmers and local small businesses. So you can't blame me for wondering what will happen to the "two contractors and a truck" business model when big national box stores jump head first into the home retrofit market.
A few weeks after Asch's visit, by the time I interviewed Matt Golden, President of ReCurve and Policy Chair of Efficiency First, I was already changing my mind about the Home Star legislation.
When I really started listening, I realized I had been hearing the same stories over and over again: small businesses ready to hire, but worried about false starts; families struggling with high energy bills, but lacking the money to insulate their attics; unemployed contractors searching for work, but finding no openings. On the contractor side, I saw abundance of supply (companies ready to grow, people ready to work) and, on the consumer side, I heard demand (homeowners wanting more comfortable, energy efficient homes). Yet, not a whole lot was happening. It seemed that after four long years of economic recession and job losses, we had all lost some confidence. The Home Star legislation is meant to unlock this market demand by providing a jump start to put the home energy retrofit industry back on track, paving the way to sustainable growth and job recovery.
Ultimately, Matt Golden helped me see the big picture. More than just a rebate program, Home Star will transform the home energy efficiency improvement industry by encouraging national standards, contractor training, and substantial benefits to small business, big business, and homeowners.
Most immediately, Home Star will stimulate demand for home energy efficiency improvements on a scale that's never been seen before, creating an estimated 168,000 jobs over the next two years. By structuring the program as a direct rebate for homeowners and providing two tiers of improvements ("Silver Star" and "Gold Star"), small businesses can compete and differentiate their services in an expanding marketplace. In places like Boulder, Colorado, where we tend to root for the home team, I have no doubt that local businesses will continue to thrive.
Beyond the immediate benefits, I have become convinced of the long-term environmental and economic importance of scaling the home energy efficiency improvement industry. So while I remain a champion for small businesses everywhere, I understand that we also need big business on board if we are serious about energy independence and meeting the challenges of global climate change. It will take an army of small businesses, as well as the big box stores, to weatherize the millions of homes nationwide needed to combat global warming and move towards a truly sustainable clean energy economy.
So in the end, I changed my mind about Home Star. Yes, I know, it's still government spending. But in a world where we subsidize oil companies with tax breaks and where high unemployment rates cost the government money, passing the Home Star legislation -- which provides incentives for Main Street, while slashing unemployment -- sounds pretty much like a home run.
Laura Hutchings is the President of Populus®, a small business that hopes to benefit from the passage of the Home Star legislation, and is co-chair of the Colorado Chapter of Efficiency First, a non-profit trade organization representing the home performance contracting industry.
Follow Laura A. Hutchings on Twitter: www.twitter.com/populusboulder