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When the choice is “heat or eat”

Why are policymakers ignoring the burden of utility bills?

Increasingly higher utility bills, constant relocation, health consequences of not living at an adequate temperature, less efficient ways to adequate a place in extreme weather seasons, anxiety disorders and depression are just part of what happens to people living with what is called “energy insecurity”, an issue that people at the Hunts Point area in the South Bronx keep experiencing.

“Based on our investigation using state data, it appeared as we have a much greater problem with energy burden than other communities,” says Angela Tovar, Director of Community Development at The Point, a non-profit organization that works at Hunts Point area in the Bronx. A particular concern for Tovar is the fact that while the average percent income that is used for paying the energy bills in New York City is between 1% and 3%, in Hunts Point –where two-thirds of its residents are Hispanic or Latino and more than one-quarter is Black or African-American–, the average expenditure in those bills is around 5.,03%. That percentage number climbs in nearby areas such as Mott Haven to 8 or even 9%.

A recent study conducted by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health suggests that in areas where immigrants and African American communities merge -such as Hunts Point-, energy burden ends up being one of the most significant issues.

The concept of “energy insecurity” might be new to many but not to the people who has to face it. When a family has to use more of their 10% of their budget to pay for their energy it is considered that they are suffering what it is also called economic energy insecurity. Just in 2006, before the economic crisis in the U.S., around 16 million people were considered to be affected by this issue. Research from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program also suggests that average income households in the U.S. spend 3% on utility based expenditures while it jumps to 33% for low income households.

To researchers such as Diana Hernandez, an assistant professor at Columbia and also who led the research, this kind of hardships seems to be “hidden” because the concept of basic needs overshadows it: “Here in the U.S. we tend to think that the basic needs –food, housing — are the ones that have to be considered. But actually, in a modern society like this one is impossible to forget what happens inside the house of someone that cannot pay the utility bills,” Hernandez, said. Her research shows that “energy burden” may be disproportionately affecting specific groups in the U.S. and also offers a framework to focus on an issue “mostly disregarded in academia,” she explained.

Utility bills -which Hernandez explained that can be higher because of low energy efficient buildings- are just a part of the issue: in low-income housing units in which dwellers are frequently not charged with utility bills, upfront installation costs of things such as AC units can be the main hurdle.

Hernandez says there is a “double burden” consisting of rent and those utility bills that affects people who are not in a strong position to face them at all, which generates “a vicious cycle that puts these households in a never ending downward spiral.” And the findings of the research, which was based on data from the American Community Survey, show that factors such as region, race, housing type, area (metropolitan or rural) and citizen status play a role in how heavy can this energy burden be for them.

One of the most noticeable findings of the research is that immigrant families who rent houses are also less likely to experience less energy burden, which can be related to home country values and modest living practices but is not necessarily a good thing for them, Hernandez explained. “They behave different with energy. They are probably more careful with how they consume energy or they turn off their thermostats. But we think it´s all part of the ethos of modest living, and how that impacts in how you use energy. You may not control the price of your rent, but you can regulate how you consume energy. And that has other consequences in health, in the quality of your sleep, and also in your productivity. So, there is a downside in those energy conservation efforts to balance a budget,” Hernandez said.

The sample, which included 63,193 low-income households with children under 18 years old, showed that only a 25% doesn´t experience any kind of burden, while a 34% experience the double burden. The regional difference in burden type is also evident given the findings of the study. Residents from the Northeast, Midwest, or South of the U.S. are inclined to experience the double burden, whereas residents from the West are more prone to experience just the rent burden (43%) About this, Hernández says that “now we should try to discern why does that happen. As I said, we´re just starting to identify these issues”. The study studio shows also that when it comes to economic energy insecurity, native-born non-Hispanic blacks are significantly more likely (111%) to experience such hardship than native-born whites.

“We believe that one of the reasons for that is probably the types of housing that people in this group can access, which many times is in segregated areas,” Hernandez added. About that of housing, findings suggest that living in an attached house or a large apartment building rather than in a single detached house decreases the risk of experiencing economic energy insecurity by 35% and 61%, respectively, while living in mobile home or trailer increases such risk by 9%. Mostly, the experts think that this has to do with the fact that living inside a building still provides some kind of network that can help the affected in some way, or the fact that some low-income housing projects don´t charge for utilities at all.

For Tovar, one of the big issues to tackle when it comes to this energy burden has to do with the housing conditions of the building. “Our housing stock is older and less energy-efficient. That is also a factor that complicates the situation,” added Tovar. To try to address this energy burden, people end up taking measures to supplement their utilities such as using the kitchen stove for heating the house, which despite not being an efficient way to use energy also carries an obvious fire threat inside the house.

She also mentioned that another big hurdle is that people in the neighborhood are also frequently unaware of the few state programs that already aim to help for at least partially solving these problems, such as the Weatherization program or the Home Energy Assistance Program. “We know that the city is working on these things while we are doing the same,” Tovar said. The Point is currently working in a solar panel energy project to which people will be able to subscribe, something that may allow them to drastically reduce their energy bills.

“We still have a long way to go, but as people feel more and more choked because of the economic situation in the country, this is going to be a much more important issue. If the process starts with naming, continues with blaming and ends with claiming, we´re still in the ´naming´ stage of that continuum. But we haven´t recognized it as a problem yet,” Hernandez concluded.