Study examines how people of color get stuck with higher energy bills

rooftop solar
Embracing solar energy is currently not an option for most renters, condominiums or townhome owners, or low-income households lacking the financial means to install rooftop solar. ("Solar City - Solar Install Day 4" by Thomas Hart is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)
rooftop solar
Embracing solar energy is currently not an option for most renters, condominiums or townhome owners, or low-income households lacking the financial means to install rooftop solar. (“Solar City – Solar Install Day 4” by Thomas Hart is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Neighborhoods with more people of color spend a much larger percentage of their income on energy bills than the average white family, according to a recent study, providing new evidence that energy burden inequities are driven in part by racial segregation.

In the study published in Journal of the American Planning Association and reported by CityLab, a research team analyzed energy audit reports from about 13,000 apartment buildings across five U.S. cities—Boston, Cambridge, New York City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C and found that households of color experienced higher energy burdens when compared to the average household in the same city.

Overall, the analysis showed the poorest families pay a larger share of their income on utilities than wealthier families, but minority neighborhoods faced an even greater burden. 

Part of the reason, according to the report, is that minority households disproportionately bear the burden of poor-quality and energy-inefficient housing, usually older housing stocks and smaller units like apartments, with inefficient heating and lighting infrastructure. 

According to the report, poverty and discrimination in rental and housing markets drive people of color into older, less efficient buildings leading to higher energy costs.

In fact, residents of minority neighborhoods who make less than 50 percent of area median income are 27 percent more energy-cost burdened than residents in the same wage bracket who live in predominantly white neighborhoods. 

“Regardless of income, if that disparity exists, then if nothing else, it’s just a consistent statement of the fact that it’s race,” one of the authors of the study, Vincent Reina, told CityLab. “We care from an environmental perspective about all of our consumption levels, but from an energy justice perspective, we particularly care about the lowest-income households because those have the least agency in making decisions that can actually affect their consumption levels.”

While the study found that white households consume more energy overall, black and Latino households paid more per square foot, indicating relative inefficiency of their home.

Adopting energy disclosure laws can help city officials craft better energy efficiency policies that target the buildings and families who most need them, argued Reina.

“We wanted to provide a more nuanced kind of estimate of energy cost burdens and to highlight the importance of disclosure data laws,” Reina said, “and how you can use that data to identify these phenomenon.”

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.