Living in a Changing Neighborhood

Rosita grew up in Chicago, surrounded by family members who lived on her block. Today, she and her daughter live in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in a brick “two-flat”, a local term for a two-story building with one apartment unit on each floor. Rosita purchased her home 28 years ago. Built in 1902, her home has a finished basement as well as a yard. In the 28 years that Rosita has lived in her neighborhood, she has seen it go through quite a few changes. This type of displacement that Rosita has witnessed is also known as gentrification. Gentrification is the process of changing the character of a neighborhood, typically through an influx of higher-income residents, businesses, and real estate investment. Neighborhoods that experience gentrification are often occupied by residents of color, and these are the people forced to leave the neighborhood when the cost of living becomes unaffordable. Rosita has been able to keep her home even as her neighborhood gentrifies. In fact, she is just two short years away from fully paying off her mortgage. This is a huge accomplishment considering only about a third of U.S. homes are fully paid off.  

Extreme Heat and Access to Air Conditioning

Like many Chicagoans, Rosita and her daughter do not have central air conditioning, so on hot days they struggle to stay comfortable in their home. Only about 30% of single-family homes in Chicago have central AC, compared to 76% of homes nationally. Chicago’s 2- to 4-unit buildings, like the one Rosita lives in, are even less likely to have a central cooling system at only 9%. Because of this, many families are forced to find other ways to stay cool during the summer. As climate change advances, heat waves have been growing in both number and strength. Extreme heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., even though most of these deaths are preventable. Research has also found that extreme heat disproportionately affects the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, and renters and homeowners with lower incomes. Because Chicago has so many older homes without central air conditioning, the city is in need of upgrades to protect these communities against future extreme heat. 

Managing Home Maintenance

When she became a homeowner, Rosita learned a lot about how to manage her home. This included how to do home maintenance and repairs, but also how to manage her mortgage payments and pay her utility bills. However, Rosita understands that knowing how to budget and creating a system for yourself can only go so far. Sometimes basic necessities are simply unaffordable for people. 



Fixed Incomes and Rising Prices

Gladys is a homeowner living in the Hermosa neighborhood of Chicago. She lives in a frame construction style house that was built in 1907 with her daughter, who now has three children of her own. Since she’s retired, Gladys’s fixed income from her social security and pension has to cover all her costs. When costs like Medicare go up, it greatly impacts people like Gladys. From 2021 to 2022, Medicare premiums went up a whopping 14.5%, which is one of the largest increases in the history of the program.  In addition to rising prices, unexpected events can also be costly – especially when it comes to home maintenance. Beyond the unexpected maintenance costs following a fire or a flood, people living in older homes like Gladys’s often see much higher utility bills than newer homes. In fact, homes that were built before 1950 and use natural gas spend an average of 27% more on space heating than those built after 1980. And for most people, like Gladys, a natural gas bill is not their only utility bill.  

Mental Wellness and Unaffordable Utility Bills

Like so many Americans, Gladys has felt the sting of rising prices and it has greatly impacted her financial wellness. The stress that comes from unaffordable energy bills can greatly impact a person’s mental health. As Gladys and her daughter point out, nobody feels good when they don’t have any money. Research shows strong correlations between families experiencing poverty and mental health concerns. And while utility bill and energy assistance programs exist, finding the right program can often be a challenge in itself. Sometimes families struggling to get by are not sure where to even go for help. Gladys’s daughter encouraged her to start looking for assistance when her bills started getting out of control. 



Understanding Home Energy Use

Honnie is a Senior Energy Engineer for Elevate, a nonprofit that increases access to clean and affordable heat, power, and water for communities that have historically been under-invested in. Honnie works on a program that helps homeowners “electrify” their homes – meaning remove old fossil fuel appliances and replace them with efficient, electric appliances to save energy. In addition to conducting home energy assessments and helping people enroll in these programs, Honnie works hard to help people understand how they use energy at home.  

The Personal Side of Energy Efficiency

Honnie works in the energy field, and she also has a personal connection to using and saving energy. She remembers learning about energy efficiency from her grandmother, a Mexican immigrant to the U.S. Like Honnie and her family, the way people use energy is often inspired by cultural practices and the daily routines they grew up with. 

Who Is Affected by Energy Insecurity?

Honnie earned her Master’s degree in engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology, where she discovered her passion for helping families learn how to reduce their energy use, specifically in communities and neighborhoods that have received less investment in the buildings. Research shows that even though white households have the highest levels of carbon emissions at home, compared to other groups in the U.S., Black households tend to have the highest energy bills. When energy bills are unaffordable to a family, that’s part of energy insecurity. Over half of Black families in the U.S. experience energy insecurity, compared to only about 20% of white families. Federal, state, and local policies are starting to focus on addressing these energy gaps. 



A Safe Home for Children

Rhonda is from Chicago and grew up in Englewood. She has three children, now adults, and has lived in her home in Auburn Gresham for 21 years. Rhonda is a home daycare provider. Rhonda has been incredibly resourceful in managing her home over the twenty years she’s lived in it. She was proactive when she first moved into her home by working with Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA), to get a home assessment and install insulation. On average, households can save up to 15% on heating and cooling costs by insulating their house and sealing gaps and cracks where air comes in. Because she operates a daycare out of her home, Rhonda pays special attention to the mandates and programs that keep her house safe for the children she cares for. In addition to insulation and other upgrades that made her home energy efficient, healthy, and safe for children, Rhonda has renovated her house over time to really make it her own. 

Behavioral Responses to Energy Insecurity

Throughout the years in her home, Rhonda has gotten very acquainted with how her heating system works. She’s developed effective strategies for her furnace so that she can keep her heating bills as low as possible, while still staying comfortable in her home. Before she had her windows replaced, Rhonda used to put plastic over them in the winter to keep out the cold air. She also discovered ways to manage paying her bills, especially in the winter when natural gas can get really expensive. Energy insecurity means that a household struggles to meet their basic energy needs. When a family faces this challenge, it can impact not just their finances but also their behaviors and how they respond to the challenge. Rhonda’s experiences are very common and are crucial to understanding the wide range of challenges people face when it comes to their home energy use. Energy insecurity isn’t just about the cost, it’s also about the home itself and the ways people respond to their situation. More research is needed to continue studying the broad scope of energy affordability and energy insecurity, and more policy and investment are needed to support proactive homeowners like Rhonda, as well as protect households who are facing this challenge. 



Energy Use in Older Homes

Yesenia was born and raised in Chicago. She is a licensed home daycare provider and has raised four children of her own. She has been living in her home in Chicago Lawn since 2006.  Yesenia’s home is commonly known in Chicago as a workers cottage. Built between the 1870’s and 1910’s, this style of house is one of the more affordable types of homes in Chicago. However, because workers cottages are some of the oldest homes in the city, they can be challenging to maintain. Trying to heat or cool an older home with its original systems can use a lot of energy. Yesenia experienced this in her home and was resourceful in creating strategies to help stay comfortable and keep her bills low. Despite her best efforts, Yesenia’s older home still caused her to have outrageously high gas bills. 

Energy Burden and Energy Insecurity

When a household like Yesenia’s biggest living costs are their energy bills, they have what is known as a high energy burden. Energy burden is the percentage of household income that goes towards energy costs. Similar to energy burden is energy insecurity, which is the inability to meet basic household energy needs. Energy insecurity is a term that means much more than paying or not paying bills, and speaks to how people live their lives. Energy insecurity not only impacts a household financially, but can affect their overall well being. When people experience chronic energy stress like Yesenia did, it can deteriorate their physical and mental health.   

Removing Toxins in Older Homes

Older homes can impact health in more ways than one. In addition to creating energy challenges, older homes can often harbor toxic materials such as lead, asbestos, or air pollution, which can contribute to severe health issues like asthma. Yesenia was incredibly proactive about getting help for her family and the children in her daycare. When she learned about a special lead abatement program that replaces old windows, she didn’t hesitate to see if her home qualified. Even before having her windows replaced, Yesenia reached out to assistance programs in the area for help with her bills.  

Energy Assistance Programs

Stories like Yesenia’s are not uncommon. Fortunately, she was able to access the help she needed. She applied to every program and opportunity that came her way. But many families can’t get assistance even if they qualify. LIHEAP, for example, which is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, typically only helps about 15% of Illinois households who qualify because funding gets used up so quickly. And many other families don’t actually know where to go to get the help that they need. 



Maintaining a Historic Home

Cheryl is a home daycare provider living and working in the North Austin neighborhood of Chicago. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama and moved to Chicago when she was 19 years old. Cheryl’s home is a Chicago bungalow that was built in 1916. This type of brick construction home was incredibly popular in the early 20th century, providing homes to Chicago residents across the whole city. Like the bungalows, there are many other types of single-family homes in Chicago that are nearly a hundred years old and are rich in architectural history. In fact, about 49% of all single-family units in the city were built before 1940. These older homes were made to last—today they make up an important part of the affordable housing stock and are great options for first time homeowners. However, as buildings age they can be difficult to maintain, especially if the house still has some of its original features.   

Unaffordable Utility Bills

Like many of us, Cheryl not only thinks about the maintenance of her home, but also about paying her utility bills. She thinks about her family’s energy use when she can. Using less energy is important, but it’s often not enough to keep utility bills affordable, especially when energy prices spike globally. Energy is a basic need for all households and families. When energy prices get to be too high, some families have to make painful trade-offs between paying their utility bills or buying food and medications. In fact, a national survey found that over 25% of U.S. households are forced to limit or go without basic necessities in order to pay their energy bills. Additionally, the onset of the pandemic in 2020 impacted millions of Americans’ ability to work, which only worsened their ability to pay bills. Cheryl, for example, ceased the operation of her daycare during the lockdown, which in turn made it even harder to afford utilities. 

Accessing Assistance Programs

For families needing help, support like Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is available and crucial to helping with utility bill payments. However, in Illinois nearly one and a half million households qualified for LIHEAP, but only 15% of them received support in 2021 due to lack of funds. When Cheryl was unable to get bill assistance, she found her own way to manage paying her utility bills. Cheryl also enrolled in a program to replace her old windows and doors that contained lead paint. Older windows are often a source of energy loss at home. When it’s hot outside, heat can seep inside and drive up the temperature. In the winter, the heat can escape the home when trying to warm it. This movement of warm air is responsible for up to 30% of a home’s heating and cooling energy use. When Cheryl had her windows replaced, she was able to conserve some of this energy and also make her utility bills more affordable.  

Ruth Wells

Ruth Wells

The Effects of Redlining and Historical Housing Discrimination

Energy insecurity affects over 33 million households, or 27% of all homes in the U.S. When a household is energy insecure, it means they face challenges to meet basic energy needs, such as paying their utility bills or keeping the temperature in their home comfortable during the summer and winter months. Energy security is closely linked to housing security, so to understand energy challenges we must also take a deeper look at housing challenges, both past and present. For decades in the U.S., Black Americans were deliberately restricted from investing in housing due to discriminatory practices called “redlining.” Part of redlining included policies that allowed banks to deny mortgages, insurance loans, and other financial services to families based on their race or ethnicity. These practices affected generations of families that were not able to own or invest in their homes. Ruth Wells, a Black woman born in Mississippi and raised in Indiana, came to Chicago in 1949 to make a life for herself. Redlining was eventually outlawed, but its effects are still very much seen today. Previously “redlined” neighborhoods that were denied investment remain underinvested in today. This has led to lower-quality housing that uses more energy, costs more to maintain, and has more health hazards. In fact, researchers have compared the maps of formerly redlined urban areas across the country and found higher rates of poverty, chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, and even shorter life spans — sometimes as much as 20 to 30 years less than residents of other neighborhoods in the same city. These under resourced communities are still typically populated by Black, Latino, and Native American families.  

Racial Discrepancies of Energy Insecurity

Experiences with energy insecurity affect more households in the U.S. than you might think. Even families in higher income brackets struggle to meet their energy needs. In spite of energy insecurity’s prevalence across income brackets, it does disproportionately impact some groups more than others. People who rent, for instance, are far more likely to experience energy insecurity. 41% of people who rent have energy challenges, versus 20% of people who own their homes. In addition to renters, communities of color see much higher rates of energy insecurity than white communities — for instance, 52% of Black households in the U.S. experience energy insecurity, compared to only 20% of white households. Much of this discrepancy is due to discriminatory housing practices from the 1930’s that denied communities of color access to mortgages and other financial services, preventing them from owning and investing in their homes. Because of this, Black, Latino, and Native American households today still frequently reside in older housing, which tends to be less energy efficient and often has higher energy costs. Throughout the 20th century when these families did manage to acquire housing in spite of practices like redlining, they were often paying more out of pocket for it than white homeowners. One Chicago report found that in 1963, Black homeowners paid 73% more for their housing than whites, even though their median household income was half the amount of white families.  

Addressing the Racial Gap in Energy Affordability

Owning a home costs money to maintain, regardless of who you are. A recent survey found that on average, Americans spend just over $3,000 a year on home repairs, with over 40% of these simply due to normal wear and tear. When these incurred costs are unexpected, as many of them are, it can be devasting to a family’s finances. Ruth Wells, a Black homeowner who bought her home in 1959, describes her experience with surprise home repairs. Many of the current housing and energy challenges that Black homeowners and renters face today are primarily the fault of predatory policies that kept these communities at a disadvantage. Though the racial wealth gap has improved since the 1960s, in more recent years the gap has actually increased since the late 1980s: in 2019, Black Americans were found to have one-sixth the wealth of white Americans. This directly impacts the ability to pay utility bills, let alone spend thousands of dollars investing in home maintenance. While government agencies like the City of Chicago have begun to invest in these historically neglected communities, there is still a long way to go. Projects that improve older buildings in order to lower utility bills for residents are a step in the right direction, but more policies and programs that prioritize these neighborhoods are needed to build an equitable future.