Environmental justice is the future. Through collaboration, coalition building, and education groups like Nonprofit Accountability Group, Operation Fuel, and Voices of Hunger are working around the state with tenants and legislators to create tangible change. One way to combat climate change and help mitigate the impacts is through home energy efficiency.
Energy efficiency is not a new concept for people who are poor. We’ve been doing it for years. People who lack access to professional weatherization put trash bags on windows to keep the heat in, but that also blocks out sunlight and fresh air in neighborhoods where it sometimes isn’t safe to go outside. We use our gas ovens to heat by turning them on and leaving the door open overnight. We boil pots of water on the stove to warm chilly apartment air. Both are hazards in themselves, but we have to stay warm. We search for housing with heat and hot water included; moving into a “cold flat” apartment means an extra bill on top of soaring rent.
We are often led to believe that people who are poor don’t understand or care about energy efficiency. But this is simply not true. A recent Yale University study, the Tenant Energy Advocacy (TEA) project, found that low-income tenants are extremely aware. They may not be familiar with the term “energy efficiency,” but they are experts at doing everything they can to save on energy use, to try to keep their homes comfortable for their families without racking up bills they cannot afford.
For people living in cities like Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, the need to be energy efficient is urgent. Residents of low-income neighborhoods in these cities, who are disproportionately Black and people of color, are severely impacted by environmental racism. One way that manifests is through high housing and energy cost burdens. People of color are more likely than white people to live in these neighborhoods, due to decades of discriminatory policies such as redlining.
Redlining gave white families opportunities to invest in property in the suburbs, while denying affordable loans to non-whites that would have allowed them to build and protect property-based wealth. The areas where the latter still live are more likely than others to be urban heat islands, defined by the EPA as “areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies.”
Buildings in these areas are not built to keep the heat in during the winter, or out during the summer. They are poorly insulated, with leaky windows and doors. Most low-income residents in these cities rent, and far too often landlords don’t invest in maintaining their rental properties, worsening tenants’ energy burden. Living in uncomfortably hot or cold homes has lasting effects on our health and overall quality of life. People are at risk of heat stroke, respiratory disease and other illnesses related to living in homes that are too hot/cold — sometimes even death.
We’ve also been led to believe that people who are poor don’t understand or care about climate change, or the role that home energy use plays in exacerbating the climate crisis. But this is also not true. Poor people care — often more than others because of the direct link to their wallets, and their health. But, for low-income tenants, energy justice is intersectional, not binary. We have been in meetings with academic experts and activists dedicated to home energy efficiency to protect our climate, but the conversation over and over again leaves those of us those who know what it’s like to be poor, again, often Black people and people of color, literally out in the cold. These conversations all too often focus on energy as if it is an isolated issue; any talk of housing insecurity is quickly glossed over as a detail, rather than the heart of the issue.
But for people who are poor, it is all about housing. Participants in the TEA study explained that while they desperately want more energy efficient homes, they have to take care of more urgent needs first. That means paying the rent, and finding help to pay unaffordable utility bills so they don’t get disconnected, to avoid the health, housing, financial, educational and other negative cascading effects of having the lights shut off. People are extremely frustrated that they have to live in inefficient homes that make those bills higher, but paying rent and applying for assistance to prevent disconnections has to come first.
To make things worse, when people do take the time to find out about energy efficiency programs, complete the burdensome paperwork and get in touch with and convince their landlords to sign off on an application, too often the promised upgrades do not materialize. Low-income rental units are more likely to have roof leaks, mold, poor indoor air quality, lead piping, asbestos, and old wiring which prevent significant energy efficiency upgrades from being completed. In Connecticut in 2019, one quarter of low-income residential weatherization projects through Energize-CT could not proceed due to such barriers. Participants in the TEA project talked about these challenges. Even if something gets done, it’s often minimal. Everyone has heard about someone who had a box of lightbulbs dumped at their door, the promised suite of energy efficiency upgrades abandoned due to the barriers mentioned above.
The TEA study sought to understand how tenants might be ‘activated’ to get involved in advocating for more energy efficiency upgrades in low-income rental housing. And the answer is simple. Until people can pay their rent and keep the lights and heat on, energy justice will not be realized. Energy justice is not being evicted when you lose access to utilities because you can’t pay the bill. It’s also not being evicted because you can’t pay your rent; homelessness means not having energy at all.
It is time for activists fighting to prevent climate change to recognize that their fight, the fight for housing justice and the fight for energy justice are the same fight.
Tenaya Taylor is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Accountability Group. Annie Harper, PhD, is an Assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine