Energy poverty

People with low incomes don't have to live in cold, leaky buildings; affordable energy and conservation go hand-in-hand.

In 2007, several Haligonians living on low incomes testified before the Utility and Review Board. They were making the case that energy prices are too high. They couldn't afford food and heat; it was either/or. These households suffer energy poverty, meaning they pay more than six percent of their incomes on heat and electricity.

Environmentalists and left-leaning politicians tend to ignore energy poverty. It complicates their argument that energy should cost more to encourage conservation and allow for a full investment in mass renewable energy.

I agree with them, but ignoring complications doesn't make them go away. In this case, ignoring the need for affordable energy could leave low-income households in the cold and dark as we move toward renewables.

Fortunately, Carol Charlebois is more forward-thinking than your average politico. She's director of Metro Non-Profit Housing Association. "Some of our tenants are concerned about energy efficiency," she tells me. "We pay utilities but some of the buildings do get very cold."

At MNPHA, when tenants have a concern, it gets addressed. That's because tenants are on the board of directors, the philosophy being that in order to thrive, people need power over their own living conditions.

In response to those concerns, Charlebois sought a government grant to retrofit the organization's older buildings. "I've been looking for years," she says, "but there was nothing for non-profits."

The only grants were for large private property developers. In the end it was a private company, Home Depot, that approached her about a small building grant.

Charlebois applied for $25,000 to upgrade the first building MNPHA bought in Halifax, and the oldest one it owns, an eight-unit Cunard Street apartment building bought in 1996. "It's electric heat, very expensive," Charlebois says. "It uses a lot of water, and tenants get cold in the winter sometimes."

With the help of engineer Michael Burke, who used to chair Hope Cottage, MNPHA found the biggest inefficiencies in the building. The money will be used to insulate the basement, replace the doors, and install weather stripping and low-flow toilets throughout.

Back when MNPHA bought the Cunard Street building, people living on disability got $490 a month. In 14 years, that number has increased a whopping $45. "You don't find apartments for $535," Charlebois says.

But because MNPHA covers utilities and never raises its rates, rising utility costs are making it hard for the organization to maintain buildings properly. Charlebois says other non-profit housing organizations have already had to sell properties off due to rising costs.

"Unpredictable oil prices leave us with a lot of uncertainty in our budget," Charlebois adds. The constant threat of a spike in the price of oil means she has to over-budget for fuel, which deprives other program needs. The Home Depot grant will save energy costs in the long run. Charlebois is also driven by a desire to be more environmentally responsible as a landlord, even a public service landlord.

Most low-income households, however, don't have access to Home Depot grants. Although retrofits would save them money---in many cases bringing them out of energy poverty--- in the long run, they lack the means to make upfront investments. The few government energy conservation programs designed for the poor tend to offer only shallow means of saving energy, like better light bulbs.

As a result, people without means often live in old, inefficient buildings, freezing or using more energy than they can afford just to stay warm. MNPHA's Housing Help program helps people (not their own tenants) in this situation negotiate with Nova Scotia Power. "They are very hard- nosed," Charlebois says of NSP. "There is no leeway."

Housing Help offers a small one-time emergency fund for households in arrears. "But we have to make sure their situation is stable," Charlebois says. "There's no point paying arrears if it comes up again and again. Yet if you only make a couple hundred dollars beyond rent, it's an impossible situation."

A truly forward-thinking energy policy would put a significant dent in energy poverty---and simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions---by offering deep retrofits to all low-income households. But for now, "neither the provincial nor the federal government values non-profit housing," Charlebois says.

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