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The Energy Burden Gap: Part One of Our Housing & the Environment Series

By Caitlyn Baylor

Have you read the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report? It’s a very sobering assessment of the unprecedented and irreversible climate changes underway throughout our world.

You will often hear us say that Habitat for Humanity works to create a world where everyone has a decent place to live. A big part of this, naturally, is creating shelter itself. But in the face of the climate crisis and increasingly intense meteorological patterns, this vision needs to account for the reality that, without intentional intervention and strategy, climate change is only going to compound the existing inequities in housing. 

Here in the United States, a key piece of climate-related housing inequity is access– or lack thereof– to energy efficient housing.  

An “energy burden gap” is widening, in which lower income households are starting to pay disproportionately higher costs for utilities relative to their income, while higher income households are finding ways to disproportionately lower their cost for utilities through costly additions like solar panels, geothermal heating, and tankless water heaters. Another way to look at this gap is that the amount you must pay for your utilities per square foot of housing can be radically different depending on your circumstances. 

Rental units that are older and outdated tend to be more affordable in their base-cost for families with lower incomes. But lower cost housing is significantly less efficient than newer and higher cost housing stock, so the potential savings on rent is offset by the higher utility costs. With temperature extremes on the rise, some low-income families are paying as much every month toward utilities as they already pay in rent or would pay toward a mortgage. This is particularly troubling because according to Energy Efficiency for All, high utility bills are the “primary reason that people resort to payday loans, which play an outsized role in the perpetuation of poverty” (Energy Efficiency for All). The need for efficient housing options tailored to low-income households is clear. 

To begin to bridge the disconnect between energy efficiency and low-income communities, one step Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity took in 2018 was to start partnering with ComEd to construct our homes to the highest standards of energy efficiency. We wanted to ensure that as home buyers moved from outdated rental units into their new homes, they would leave the energy burden behind. For this partnership, we must meet 13 criteria as we build, from using energy efficient appliances, mechanicals, and lighting throughout to installing lower flow toilets and faucets to insulating with things like air-tight windows.

We are also working to connect our homeowners to community solar farms so that even without making a high-cost upfront investment in solar panels, they can enjoy some of the cost-savings associated with using solar energy. 

One of our recent homebuyers, who had been renting an older house before closing on her loan, shared: “My monthly bill is half of what I paid in the past. I have never seen a monthly bill this cheap in years! My [utility] bill in my new home is a blessing.”

The energy burden gap is one of the many emerging inequities that makes addressing the human impact of the climate crisis so complex and important. As housing providers, we have a duty to remain mindful of the new housing disparities springing up in our changing world, and to play a part in closing the energy burden gap by making energy efficiency more equitably accessible for all. 

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