VOICES: Home repair and retrofits can reduce energy burdens, help affordability

In conversations about housing affordability, one significant contributor to housing costs often goes unseen amidst increasing rent prices and mortgage rates: energy costs.

Housing is considered affordable if a household spends less than 30% of their income on housing costs such as rent or mortgage, insurance, and utilities. It’s this last attribute, utilities, that Dayton Energy Collaborative is working to address.

Across Dayton the average energy burden (defined as the percent of household income spent on energy costs) is 4%, slightly higher than the state average of 3%. However, this average city-wide outlook covers up some inequalities. Looking at energy affordability data broken down by census-tract shows that 18 of Dayton’s 53 census tracts have “high” average energy burdens of 6% or higher. Moreover, looking at that data broken down by income level shows that households below the poverty line have an average energy burden of 18%, more than half of what households can spend on housing for it to be considered affordable.

While consumption behaviors are typically thought of as the driver for high energy use, research from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that this holds true primarily for higher-income households. For lower income households, structural inefficiencies (like a lack of insulation or poorly sealed window frames) rather than inefficient behavior tend to lead to higher energy use and expenditures.

These severe energy burdens have been exacerbated in recent years by increased rates for both natural gas and electric. Natural gas prices have increased more than 50% since 2020 and AES-Ohio raised generation charges from 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to 10.91 cents per kWh starting this past June. Luckily, the City of Dayton’s Community Choice Aggregation program offered some relief to the electric generation increases by locking in a rate of 7.457 cents per kWh, almost a third lower than the standard offering.

To meet the need for efficiency improvements in Dayton’s housing stock and lower household energy burdens, Dayton Energy Collaborative, in partnership with Miami Valley Community Action Partnership, CountyCorp, and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Dayton, has developed a one-stop-shop home repair and retrofit program.

The one-stop-shop hopes to address three of the largest barriers facing traditional retrofit programs, namely that they have a limited scope of retrofit measures, inadequate funding compared to demand, and high deferral rates. Retrofit programs are generally limited to working only on weatherization and efficiency measures. Even with limited scope, household retrofit programs don’t have the funding necessary to meet the need for retrofitting all low- and moderate-income housing. Another challenge facing existing programs is that due to inadequate funding, restrictive eligibility qualifications, and safety requirements deferral rates are as high as 50%.

By coordinating various funding and financing resources to implement measures that address the whole building as a system, rather than one-off projects that leave more work on the table and families having to re-apply for assistance multiple times.

On average, weatherization measures can save 18% in heating consumption and 7% in electric consumption for an annual savings of $372. Investing in whole home retrofits with these households creates housing that is affordable, healthy, and energy efficient.

Addressing housing affordability in Dayton will take an all-of-the-above approach including rehabbing existing structures and building new developments. Among those solutions needs to be reducing high energy burdens for low- and moderate-income households. By investing in household repairs and retrofits, Dayton households can continue to live in their current homes with lower bills, better comfort, and improved air quality.

Tom Tappel is the Executive Director at the Dayton Energy Collaborative.

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