Transforming low-income communities through energy efficiency

Residential energy efficiency offers untold potential for savings, job creation, improvements in health and safety, and community reinvestment. But often, the people who would benefit most from energy upgrades are least able to afford them.

Accessible and affordable energy efficiency would be transformative for low-income families who too often must choose between paying this month’s energy bill or paying for food or medicine. More energy-efficient housing would translate into real savings for families and would result in healthier, more decent places to live.

Habitat for Humanity’s recently released 2015 Shelter Report — “Less is More: Transforming Low-Income Communities Through Energy Efficiency” — examines the landscape of this most important issue.

Among the report’s observations:

  • Low-income families in the U.S. spend anywhere from 17 percent to 50 percent of their incomes on household energy, whereas others spend an average of 4 percent.
  • Residential energy use represents 22 percent of total energy consumption in the United States, and Americans spend 230 billion annually on home energy.
  • Despite its intangible nature, energy efficiency remains the U.S.’ greatest single energy resource, generating more available energy than oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear.
  • Higher energy performance standards mean better health. Older homes in low-income communities often have outdated heating and cooling equipment, and the families who live in them suffer much higher incidences of respiratory and cardiac problems. The American Medical Association estimates inferior indoor air quality results in 15 billion in productivity losses every year.
  • The issue is an international one: In Hungary, for example, about 1 million people, or more than 10 percent of the population, are unable to properly heat their homes in winter.

Among Habitat’s recent success stories:

  • In Houston, 27 Habitat homes are powered by solar panels, with an estimated savings on family utility bills of more than 14,000 over 20 years. “It’s very much about not just helping our homeowners with the house, but helping them over the long run,” says Allison Hay, Houston Habitat’s executive director.
  • In Philadelphia, Audrey Spann still lives in the 100-year-old row house where she was born. The aging house suffered from factors common to older buildings, such as lack of insulation and a broken water heater. Habitat Philadelphia’s Weatherization and Home Repair program helped Spann install a new roof, add insulation, caulk windows and doors, clean air ducts, and install a new water heater and stove. “It’s such a blessing,” Spann says. “My water bill is lower, my electric bill is lower, and my gas bill is lower even though we had a really rough winter. It’s really energy-efficient now.”
  • In the village of Dunakeszi, Hungary, teacher Zsofia Vaali sometimes had her gas or electricity cut off when she could no longer afford her monthly bill and would close off parts of her house to save money on heating. “It was a constant struggle,” Vaali says. “One of my daughters used to not be able to sleep in her own room on the coldest nights of the winter.” Through Habitat Hungary’s Fuel Poverty Program, volunteers helped Vaali attach large blocks of insulation to the walls of her home and stucco over the new walls. When the work was finished, the family’s annual heating bill dropped by 375.

“Habitat was a pioneer in demonstrating that health, energy-efficient homes aren’t only for the wealthy,” says Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford. “Our standard and belief is that every family should have a healthy, energy-efficient place to live.”

To learn more, read the full report and its list of policy recommendations. Sign up to become an advocate on this and other vital housing issues today!