To act on the issues of fossil fuel dependency, energy efficiency, and propagation of clean energy, the Connecticut chapter of Sierra Club proposed the Liberal Arts Action Lab research Energy Burden in North Hartford’s Upper Albany area. Energy burden is a concept that has been used to analyze energy consumption more widely, but current research is more focused on efficiency and social implications related to the topic.
This project focused on the Upper Albany neighborhood as it represents a community that experiences elevated levels of energy burden. Statistics indicate average energy burden in this neighborhood is almost eight percent, compared to six percent in Hartford and only three percent statewide. An essential component of this research was to gain an understanding of the contributing factors to an individual’s Energy Burden and how the burden impacts their daily lives. Along with this neighborhood concentration it is important to note that Upper Albany is a self-identified Black neighborhood of mostly renters, hence the disproportionate effect of Energy Burden along racial lines. Further evidence of the racialized effect of Energy Burden becomes evident when we analyze the history of redlining in the country.
Findings show that red lined neighborhoods, such as Upper Albany, are far more susceptible to Energy Burden due to the compounding effects of aged housing stock, low owner occupancy, and higher rates of poverty. This trend exists in Connecticut as well which has a statewide renter occupancy rate of thirty three percent, compared to seventy eight percent in Upper Albany. Through our investigation of the neighborhood, we attempted to get a more individualized perspective if the struggles associated with Energy Burden to understand the sacrifices residents make to survive. Other issues correlated to poverty such as food insecurity and poor health were found to be worsened by the effects of Energy Burden as well. On a neighborhood level, poverty and the struggles of Energy Burden are seen as city wide issue and worsened by the impending gentrification of the neighborhood. This is an issue with lasting effects that should be investigated by all those concerned with issues of equity, environmentalism, and efficient energy consumption.
In Hartford as a whole, around 75% of the population rents homes or apartments. This means that renters are not in control of the heating and cooling systems that are implemented, and cannot renovate them, for financial reasons and because they simply do not own homes and therefore do not have the power to do this.
Upper Albany is a predominantly minority population, with an 85% population of Afro-Caribbean, 14% Latino, and ~1% other ethnicities. When we were given a tour of Upper Albany from one of our participant photographers, Bizzie talked about how much of the population was Jamaican, with family-owned businesses that had been passed down for generations, and lots of traditional food. This area is also vastly in poverty. The average household income in Upper Albany is around $16,000, meaning that most of the area falls near or within the scale of poverty
Race and Energy Burden
The demographics of this area make it important to research because it brings about the question of why an area with predominately minorities and low income would have a higher Energy Burden and if the area is set up disproportionately for Energy Burden to occur.
Home Renters and Home Owners
When you rent a home, you are not in charge of the utilities like you are when you own a home. Landlords are in charge of utilities in rented homes. However, landlords do not seem to care much about whether or not the rented homes have good living conditions. One of our participants, Doreen, told us that her old landlord wanted to wait for the conditions to get so bad that the government would have to redo the building, so they didn’t have to pay for renovations. There is a higher rate of home renters than home owners in Upper Albany, meaning that there is a reoccurring issue in the lack of care with landlords.
Gentrification and Housing Conditions
Gentrification is a significant phenomenon occurring in Upper Albany. When we met with Bizzie, one of our photographers, they gave us a tour of Upper Albany. According to Wikipedia, gentrification is the process neighborhood change where incoming residents are from a higher socioeconomic status than current residents. It was clear to see that gentrification was occurring because initial changes made throughout the neighborhood. In the last year, along the most significant road in Upper Albany has seen an expansion of its sidewalk. This work to create a more favorable environment for potential business that would benefit from areas with increased space. Additionally, buildings and other areas are being left uncared by landlords who are waiting out the impending rise to the housing market. This is a tactic used so people will have to move out because conditions are so bad, resulting in empty buildings which landlords can now sell to developers to be converted into the newly renovated spaces at significantly higher prices. It is clear that a shift in Upper Albany’s makeup is eminent, and that landlords and city leaders are trying to slowly get rid of the poorer residents.
Climate in Hartford and its effect on Energy Burden
Seasonal changes and environmental conditions shed light on underinvestment in infrastructure. Historically, Hartford’s choices in infrastructure, such as redlining, have significantly contributed to the marginalization and existence of “intergenerational wealth disparities experiences by Black, Latinx, and other groups,” translating into a disproportional vulnerability as it pertains to energy equity. Accessibility to infrastructure, specifically infrastructure suitable for Hartford’s seasonal changes, is essential in augmenting the success of a community’s response to climate and weather hazards. Outdated appliances in homes are unsuited to existing environmental conditions, such as inadequate Air Conditioning in the summer and inadequate heating appliances in the winter (Maxim, Grubert, 2021). According to Bizzie, (see PhotoVoice for reference,) individuals who are unable to pay their energy bills or do not have sufficient heating systems will place black plastic bags over their windows as a form of isolation. This becomes a vicious cycle: inefficient or outdated appliances lead to higher energy bills which are unrealistic for many to pay. The Energy Burden results from the worsening of already existing disparities in housing through climate–driven changes.
- assistance to address the immediate problem
- energy efficiency measures to improve comfort and lower bills
- replacement of old appliances with new, fossil-free appliances
- replacement of old space (boilers and furnaces) and hot water heating systems with new all-electric fossil-free heat pumps
- deployment of rooftop and community solar
- job training and business incubators in weatherization and clean energy areas, so that community members are hired to do the work and own the businesses doing the work.
Given the current availability of technology and similar programs, these policies can be implemented quickly when they are prioritized for areas of the state like Upper Albany. Utilizing these bold community-based strategies, the energy burden that once plagued residents can now work as a point of dramatic improvement across the entire community.