Published November 25, 2008 09:10 AM

Green efforts embrace poor; More areas are updating housing to cut energy use and utility bills

Low-income people who live in old or flimsy housing are becoming prime targets for cities and groups intent on slashing energy use.

Recent efforts to cut energy consumption in the home have focused on new construction, often in more affluent areas and public buildings. Now, community organizations and cities that have embraced the green effort are homing in on low-income houses and apartments to reduce emissions and help poor people lower their utility bills.


"That area is getting a lot more attention now," says Tom Deyo, senior adviser for Green Strategies at NeighborWorks America, a non-profit that promotes homeownership and affordable housing through more than 230 local organizations.

It launched a website this month designed to help create greener and healthier housing and neighborhoods.

In several cities, public and private funds and services are teaming to give low-income households free energy audits, compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs, insulation and other energy-saving devices and tips:

*On Oct. 1, groups working with Greenprint Denver -- Mayor John Hickenlooper's climate initiative -- went door-to-door through the low-income Sunnyside neighborhood.

"We looked at utility data and found it was the highest energy-using neighborhood with the lowest income," says Michele Moss Weingarden, Greenprint director. The homes are older and poor residents or seniors on fixed incomes can't always afford the insulation and appliance upgrades available, she says.

The Neighborhood Energy Blitz gave the residents energy audits, got them to sign up for the city's free recycling service, offered a tree to plant in their backyards, replaced light bulbs and shower heads and inspected furnaces and water heaters.

*Rays of Hope Austin, a non-profit founded by local interior designer Effie Brunson, offers low-income homeowners solar panels. Before they're installed, volunteers upgrade light bulbs, insulation and appliances.

Homeowners in the Texas capital get a utility rebate from Austin Energy. Water and electricity usage can be cut by 40% to 50%.

*The Sustainability Institute in North Charleston, S.C., a non-profit, has helped 1,300-plus homeowners lower energy bills by 10% to 25%.

"Most of the homes have upwards of $300 or more a month in energy bills," says Renee Patey, program manager. "We choose homes that are bad, where the building envelope is very leaky, that get air infiltration, heat and energy loss."

Low-income areas key

Rosetta Martinez had seen those funny-shaped light bulbs in stores and knew they used less energy but at $9 apiece couldn't afford them.

So when volunteers offered a floor-to-ceiling energy audit of her two-bedroom Denver home, throwing in CF bulbs, a programmable thermostat and insulation around doors, windows, the water heater and furnace, she was ecstatic.

"I was all into saving energy," says Martinez, 53, a security guard who bought her home three years ago. "But I'm single and I'm barely making it."

Greenprint Denver found that 52% of the carbon emissions generated in Denver come from the way homes and businesses use energy (another 30% from transportation).

City officials also know that reaching lower-income households is a key to reducing energy use.

"Eighty percent of the housing stock was built before 1970, and much of that is in lower-income neighborhoods," says Mayor Hickenlooper, one of the first to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement. He set a goal of reducing per-capita greenhouse gas emissions 10% by 2012 and 25% by 2020.

A citywide effort

Hickenlooper launched Greenprint Denver with the help of 33 civic, government and business leaders. It encourages residents to take shorter showers, install CF bulbs, ride a bike or walk one day a week, plant a tree and use reusable bags. The city is working with real estate boards to do energy audits every time a house is sold.

"There is synergy in being able to put more money in the savings accounts of low-income families and do that through reducing energy," Hickenlooper says.

Greenprint mobilized organizations and companies to perform the services. The Mile High Youth Corps, for example, installed low-flow toilets in low-income houses.

"Energy costs are volatile, and we wanted to help people stay warm this winter," Weingarden says. "For this community, we knew we could have a huge impact and we wanted to make it as easy as possible."

Marlene Vasquez, 53, moved to a three-bedroom rental home in Sunnyside last summer. She's on government assistance and takes care of six grandchildren, ages 2-14.

Less than two months ago, she says, "somebody came to my door and brought me one light bulb and talked to me about energy." Then she got an energy audit, a new furnace with a digital thermostat and energy-saving bulbs. Volunteers have helped her lower her water usage.

Vasquez is excited to see how much these measures will knock off her $120-a-month energy bill. "I'm hoping for at least $30 a month," she says. 

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