As the debate about how to fix Charlotte’s affordable housing shortage rages on, it’s important to remember that skyrocketing rents are not the only factor. “Affordable housing” means a household spends no more than 30% of its income on rent and utilities. It’s that second part – the cost of utilities – that often gets left out of the conversation.
Energy Costs Hit Low-Income Homes Harder
The percentage of a household’s income spent on utilities is known as its “energy burden”. A 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that low-income households have an average energy burden of 7.2%, more than triple the 2.3% experienced by higher-income households.
In Charlotte, the study found, low-income families at the median have an 8% energy burden as opposed to 4% for the city overall.
Less Energy Efficient Homes Increase Burden
Compounding the problem is the fact that low-income renters are likely to live in housing that is not as well maintained and less energy-efficient, thereby paying for heating and cooling that literally flies out the window. If the landlord is unwilling or unable to invest in weatherization and other improvements, the tenant is left scrambling to pay for utilities or, in some cases, simply do without.
The recent announcement of Piedmont Natural Gas’ plans to increase its rates in North Carolina highlights the impact of utility bills on lower-income families. The company says the average customer’s bill would increase by about $6 a month, an amount easily absorbed by households with disposable income. But for families living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay ever-increasing rents, any additional utility costs could be the proverbial straw that breaks the budget’s back.
Most people would agree that shelter, electricity, and heat in the winter are essential to survival. These basic necessities are increasingly out of reach for too many families in our community. Let’s remember that affordable housing refers to more than just a roof and walls.