Environmental justice: Low-income people of color pay a larger portion of income on energy
It’s common knowledge that people of low income pay a larger percentage of their money on food, rent, transportation, and energy than those who are better off. In the latter instance, statisticians call the gauge the “energy cost burden.” A Department of Energy study in 2018 showed that low-income households have three times the energy cost burden as an average household and well above that of the wealthy. Too often this means a low-income household must choose uncomfortable, even dangerous options, like turning off the heat to be able to pay for medicine or keep the rent up to date or ensure kids’ bellies are full.
But there’s more to this disparity than class. A recent study in five cities by Constantine E. Kontokosta, Vincent J. Reina, and Bartosz Bonczak found that “even within defined income bands, minority households experience higher ECBs than non-Hispanic white households. For lower income households, low-cost energy improvements could reduce energy costs by as much as $1,500 per year.”
The researchers obtained their data by scrutinizing energy use disclosure forms from some 13,000 apartment buildings in Boston, Cambridge, New York City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Brendon Mock at CityLab reports, ”Residents of minority neighborhoods who make less than 50 percent of area median income (AMI) are 27 percent more energy-cost burdened than residents from the same wage bracket who live in white neighborhoods.” The trio found too that lower-income households spend 10% to 20% of what they make on energy while wealthy families in the same cities pay an average of between 1.5% to 3% of their income to pay their energy bills.
This isn’t true just for people of low income. Families with incomes ranging from 51%-80% and 81%-120% of AMI were found to face an energy cost burden average of 24%. And in New York City and the District of Columbia, people of color bringing in 121%-150% of AMI were more cost burdened than white residents with the same incomes.
Said Reina, “Regardless of income, if that disparity exists, then if nothing else, it’s just a consistent statement of the fact that it’s race. We care from an environmental perspective about all of our consumption levels, but from an energy justice perspective, we particularly care about the lowest-income households because those have the least agency in making decisions that can actually affect their consumption levels.”
All too often, the response to complaints about energy costs from people of low income elicits scolding about changing behavior to reduce the amount of energy being consumed. This, obviously, is good advice for everyone. But it’s a lot easier for the wealthy and middle class to cut back their home energy use. They tend to live in newer, better insulated, and better designed dwellings, with more up-to-date and efficient appliances. As a consequence of once legal and now de facto segregation, low-income households comprising people of color are more likely to live in older neighborhoods with less insulated housing and inefficient furnaces and appliances. Those poorer households may also be larger than the average, meaning more total energy consumption even if their capita use is lower.
As is true across a range of issues besides energy use, fundamentally changing personal habits frequently cannot be fully achieved without policy changes as well.
Reina and Kontokosta focused on that problem in a previous study in which they looked at energy use in some 4,000 subsidized multifamily housing units. The researchers discovered that energy use intensity per square foot of a dwelling in three separate government programs was significantly higher than it was for market-priced units.
As Mock points out, this is at least partially a factor because government rent subsidies that include utility allowances to cover energy costs contain no provisions designed to spur conservation by the resident or landlord to keep electric bill costs down. If a resident’s electricity costs rise, the amount going to rent falls, the subsidy remaining the same. Thus, “There is no real incentive for these building owners to invest in energy efficiency upgrades because the federal subsidies will at some point adjust to cover whatever increases occur in tenants’ electricity costs. Meanwhile, both are limited in how much they can increase rents: They can’t simply increase rent to cover whatever expenses come from installing new energy efficient equipment.”
One proposal is to sub-meter each apartment rather than splitting the electricity bill among all the apartments measured by a single meter for the building. Landlords would get the same rent each month, and residents would pay for their own electricity use. This would put the onus on individual residents for whatever electricity they consume. But without more investment from landlords in insulation, more efficient heating equipment, and more efficient appliances like refrigerators, the resident has narrow options, and still is faced with the problems of what other necessity to give up to keep the juice flowing.
Some members of Congress have ideas on how to improve matters. Just before Thanksgiving, Rep. Ilhan Omar proposed a 10-year, $1 trillion program to build 12 million new public housing units. At the same time, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders announced their “Green New Deal for Public Housing Act.” This program would invest $180 billion on energy retrofits over a decade in mostly federal public housing. “The goal,” Mock writes, “is to address the energy justice issue that Reina’s research identifies, while also making the greenhouse gas reductions needed in buildings to curb climate change.”