By Maurice Muia
It is widely known that the pandemic hit low-income communities the hardest. Skyrocketing inflation is our reality right now, making it more expensive to pay for utility bills, groceries, transportation and beyond. Meaningfully addressing the energy burden now, which was a problem before the pandemic, is one equitable way we can help improve the lives of people most impacted by rising costs throughout the economy.
Energy burden is defined as the percentage of gross household income spent on energy bills. High energy burden is considered 6% or higher while severe energy burden is 10% or more of household income spent on energy bills. In the St. Louis region, our median energy burden is slightly over 4%. Unfortunately, it’s clear that energy burden is higher for certain communities. Black households have an average energy burden of 7.4%. The average upper quartile for energy burden is 14.8% for low-income households, 12.9% for low-income multifamily households, 14.4% for Black households, and 12.9% for renting households.
Can you imagine paying nearly 15% of your total income on energy bills alone?
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Climate change underscores the urgency in addressing high energy burden. As extreme heat intensifies during summer months, and now during high spring and fall, access to performing, efficient homes is needed to keep bills affordable. High performing homes are also better equipped to keep bills low during extreme cold, like the polar vortex we all endured in February 2021. Decreasing energy demand through energy efficiency means we’re more smartly using the power generated by our utilities, which could lead to the early retirement of legacy coal plants responsible for public health issues from air pollution and exacerbating our already changing climate.
Addressing the energy burden for renters is even more difficult. Most tenants pay for their utilities, meaning landlords lack the financial incentive to install new insulation, windows, or appliances like furnaces, air conditioning, and stoves. Tenants have no real incentive to invest in major energy efficiency upgrades because they do not own the house or apartment. Additionally, for low-income homeowners wanting to upgrade their homes, it is not a straightforward process. Other considerations such as childcare, car repair, or tackling debt are often more prioritized than investing in the efficiency of a home.
To their credit, Ameren and Spire recently launched a Pay As You Save program that helps customers make energy-efficient upgrades to their homes with little or no upfront costs. Renters can benefit as well, so long as the landlord gives written consent. These are the type of program designs that can be part of the strategy towards decarbonizing our economy, especially when they are partnered with the most burdened housing residents.
This is a great start, but we must do more. Housing affordability and energy burden go hand in hand. As policymakers, we must support, design, and evaluate programs that meet the needs of highly burdened communities. That is why solutions must come from multiple directions such as improved building codes, energy disclosure policies for prospective tenants and homebuyers, enable accessible and fair financing options, establish building performance standards for new housing, and enhanced energy efficiency programs coupled with education of services for low -income people. We need to get this right as a region because it can drastically improve people’s daily lives.
The global pandemic has brought with it not only extraordinary hardships and loss of life, it has also spotlighted numerous inequities that have greatly increased energy insecurity that predated the pandemic. Thousands of Missourians are struggling to adequately meet basic household energy needs, like feeding their family and accessing medical care. Improving the efficiency of our residential buildings can improve public health, safety, and lower energy burdens, particularly in our low-income communities. An era of tremendous challenges must be met by tremendous compassion and urgency. Reducing energy costs for communities hardest hit in this pandemic must be paramount in the duties of people like me and our region’s elected officials.
Maurice Muia is a Richmond Heights council member representing the 2nd District. He is an appointmentee to the National League of Cities’ committee for energy, environment and natural resources.