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Our Burden, Your Problem: A Housing and Energy Crisis of our Own Making

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-01 - State of the Industry, click here for more

America’s poorly performing housing is a burden on all of us. In 2018, consumer spending on energy increased to $1.3 trillion. Through HUD, tax payers spend about $6.4 billion annually to cover energy bills in public and assisted housing. Considering that about 30% of this energy is wasted, one would expect a national outcry and loud demands from regulators that our energy service providers plug this massive leak before we pay for more generation resources, but that’s not the case.

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Despite the fact that there is bipartisan recognition of this issue, and its understood that investing in efficient buildings serves our collective interest, our government institutions and utilities have always struggled to address our most distressed, costly, and toxic housing infrastructure. It bears questioning how we ever let it get this bad and why our current efforts are not meeting their objectives. Could the reason be that, culturally, we insist on thinking of inefficient and unhealthy housing as only a problem for the people who live in it? And following this logic, we insist on deciding whether or not to fix it by assessing the worthiness of the occupants?

The bulk of people living in our communities’ worst housing and bearing the brunt of its negative effects are not served by available programs designed to address it. On one end of the unserved population, we find millions who are just scraping by, facing regular uncertainty about their ability to cover their electric bill, and making sacrifices on other necessities to keep the power on. But they cannot be helped because they earn too much money to be deemed sufficiently poor. On the other end are the millions more who meet our terms for being sufficiently (i.e. desperately) poor, but the housing they have access to often has critical repair issues so severe that the property is deemed too broken to qualify to be fixed, even if not too broken to charge rent for. Those caught on either end of the arbitrary and imaginary barriers we have made are designated “hard-to-reach”. This term feels particularly egregious as it places the onus of our failure to fix our housing issues back on its victims.

The intent of our housing and energy programs is to repair or replace poorly performing building components. However, when qualifying applicants, we inevitably shift the focus of our assessment from the conditions of the building they reside in, to an assessment of the occupants themselves. We inquire about their wealth and income levels. Their credit history. Their utility bill history. Their family status. Any traits that make them worthy of extra consideration, such as military service or some legally defined and certified disadvantage. None of these things have any relevance or effect on the performance of the building they reside in. But they do get at the key questions we have decided should come first. Who are we willing to help, and how do we verify that they meet our terms?

Our program designs reflect that, despite the shared financial and social burden of our poor housing stock, by and large our society tends to regard investments in housing as a form of charity. So we constructed a convoluted framework to assess, analyze, and evaluate the occupants that have been pushed into it. This occupant worthiness framework lies at the root of our failure to fix this problem year after year and generation after generation. This framework enables the poison pills of prejudice, bias, and bigotry to pollute the intended outcomes of our housing and energy programs. It allows all the cultural drivers and negative social effects of poverty to serve as barriers to the very programs that are intended to be a bridge out of poverty.

It’s the occupant worthiness framework that has allowed systemic racism to push Black people into the worst housing their communities have to offer, even if they earn as much as their white neighbors. Prejudice and bias (both conscious and unconscious) limit housing choice for immigrants, single mothers, people with a criminal record, people with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor. Our biases are consistently reinforced by the stories we tell ourselves about what kind of people live in these low-quality homes on that side of town, on that block, or in that building. They rationalize our neglect and make us lose sight of the ways that unhealthy, inefficient housing is a drain on utility and community resources, as much as they are the occupants living there. The stories influence our ability see the problem in the first place, our assumptions about what causes it, and how we design our solutions.

Take for example, the fact that the Southeast boasts the lowest energy rates but produces the highest energy bills. A Pyrrhic victory betraying a legacy of lopsided policy investment focused on keeping costs low for generation and transmission, while drastically underinvesting in demand side efficiencies for consumers. When taking stock of Southeast housing conditions, and looking at the historical roots of our housing and energy policies, it is clear this approach has resulted in abysmal conditions for our regions housing, debilitating outcomes for our residents, and deep inequality in shouldering these burdens.

So how do we break this pattern? How do we design programs that avoid putting people through a series of appraisals where any number of assessors can be swayed by the stories they tell themselves? One way forward is to change our framing of low-income accessible programs for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and demand response. To recognize housing retrofits as an investment in public infrastructure and community resiliency, rather than as a charitable act to an individual.

For example, energy efficiency benefits the electric power system by reducing electricity consumption and peak loads in a reliable, predictable, long-term, and measurable way. For utilities buying their power on the market, this can avoid significant costs for ratepayers. What’s more, with the maturation of grid interactive devices and controls, and the rapid decline in costs for on-site generation and battery storage, buildings are no longer the end of the line for electrons, but a two way street where enhanced interactivity can turn housing into grid scale generation, storage and demand response assets. Increasingly utilities find that an investment in grid interactive buildings are not just a value-added service for their customers, but also a cost-effective investment in the energy system as a whole.

The value of housing investment does not stop at utilities. Inefficient and aging building stock put residents — especially children — at a higher risk for chronic illnesses like asthma that can be exacerbated by pests, moisture, and thermal distress. 5 million households in the South (11% of all) have had to leave their home at an unhealthy temperature because of the cost of energy. 3.9 million households in the South (9% of all) are estimated to lack access to working cooling equipment in their homes, putting them at an elevated risk for heat-related illness. Investments in healthy indoor environments improve occupant health and can significantly reduce asthma attacks and other incidents of respiratory distress that often lead to costly emergency room visits along with missed school and work. While enhanced housing performance yields the most meaningful and immediate benefits to the occupants, the financial benefits ripple across the entire economy.

Emergent program models like tariffed-on-bill offer an example of this paradigm shift. TOB programs, when done well, rely on qualifying homes based on building performance assessments and the modeled savings that can be achieved with strategic investments in energy conservation measures. If the prescribed measures pencil out to realize the targeted energy savings and afford a debt neutral investment opportunity for the occupant, they qualify. This value qualified framework takes our imperfect assumptions about people out of the equation. If the engineering analysis demonstrates the value needed for the occupant and the utility, the property gets fixed. And if the occupant moves, the next occupant picks up the payments and enjoys the benefits of the investment. Its clean, its easy, and most importantly, it gets the job done.

Most of the opposition to energy efficiency programs rests in this notion of “taking money from me to help someone else that maybe I don’t think deserves help”. Let’s get out of our own way. Let’s stop relying on the stories we tell ourselves about other people as the basis for whether and how we solve our housing problems. Let’s start recognizing investments in housing as a cost-effective investment that saves money for the local utility, the hospital, the school, local employers, and ultimately, all of us.

Wesley Holmes's picture
Thank Wesley for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 19, 2021

One way forward is to change our framing of low-income accessible programs for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and demand response. To recognize housing retrofits as an investment in public infrastructure and community resiliency, rather than as a charitable act to an individual.

So important-- have to look at issues like this as systems. Energy equals equity equals health and so much more.

Thanks for sharing. 

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