Efficiency Upgrades Offer Big Benefits to Low-Income Renters, Study Finds

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Energy efficiency upgrades can have a significant effect on low-income residents. New research from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that low-income residents bear both the financial and physical brunt of living in poorly maintained and older apartment buildings.
Insufficient funds lead to thermal discomfort, especially as poor weatherization in the buildings inhabited by low-income people puts the costs of maintaining comfortable temperatures beyond reach for some people (air conditioning actually accounts for about 19% of total residential electricity use in the United States).
“Overall, energy efficiency upgrades are a promising intervention to mitigate the energy and structurally related challenges facing low-income households,” Diana Hernandez, and assistant professor of sociomedical sciences and the paper’s lead author, said in a June 10 news release.
In order to gather data for the study, Hernandez and her team surveyed 20 heads of households in New York City, as well as speaking to the landlords of a wide variety of buildings that had all recently gotten weatherization and efficiency upgrades.
They found through in-depth interviews that overall, low-income renters derived a greater benefit from the upgrades than did homeowners, citing both better physical comfort and health and lower economic stress.
More than half of the participants reported reduced energy costs, with most of those saving about 30% (between $20 and $60 each month). That’s a major impact considering that around half the participants said that they’d had to skip paying their utility bill altogether or made a partial payment at some point in the last year due to economic insecurity.
However, Hernandez stated, efficiency upgrades are not adequate to fully address “the systemic nature of the cited problems,” and “more intensive housing and policy interventions” are necessary.
She recommended those interventions focus on raising minimum indoor comfort standards to more closely align with thermal comfort levels, arranging for debt forgiveness with local utility companies, subsiding energy costs for low-income households, and offering no- or low-cost efficiency upgrades for low-income households.

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