Cincinnati to Pilot Cost-Free Energy Efficiency Aid for Lower-Income Renters

The WarmUp Cincy pilot program will help 65 low- and moderate-income renters in multi-family buildings with energy efficiency upgrades, energy education and financial assistance as needed. The city hopes to scale the program up after the pilot.

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Energy burden by neighborhood in Cincinnati - Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance
Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance
Energy burden by neighborhood in Cincinnati

Utilities are an often-hidden cost of housing, especially in older Cincinnati buildings during the cold winter months. And struggling to heat an inefficient apartment building is also a source of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.

A new program called WarmUp Cincy aims to tackle both of those issues. Now in a pilot phase, the partnership between the City of Cincinnati, the Community Action Agency, People Working Cooperatively, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance (GCEA) and the American Cities Climate Challenge will help 65 families over a 90-day period with a home energy assessment, basic energy-efficiency upgrades, information on reducing energy consumption, a family energy strategy and, if necessary, financial help with getting utilities reconnected.

Those services will come at no cost to the households who participate. The program is funded in part by a 2015 over-billing settlement with utility Duke Energy. Some of the money from that settlement goes to energy efficiency programs. 

To be eligible, households must be making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That amounts to less than $40,000 a year for a family of three. After the 90-day pilot, the city will look at ways to scale up the program to serve more renters throughout Cincinnati, including potential whole-building strategies for energy efficiency.

In its 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, the city set a goal of reducing energy burden in the city by 10 percent. The pilot program could help, leaving moderate-income families with more money for other necessities, city officials say.

"This program fills a void for our most vulnerable populations by providing residents with direct assistance to keep their families warm,” Mayor John Cranley said in a statement. “Choosing to pay a heating bill or for groceries is no choice at all. This assistance will help ease that burden."

Energy access is a large and under-appreciated issue in the city. A 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that Greater Cincinnatians face the eighth-worst energy affordability of the country's 48 largest metro regions. That situation is even worse for low income individuals in the city limits, subsequent research by the GCEA found. 

In a study released in September last year, GCEA looked into energy burden by Cincinnati neighborhood and Census tract. Energy burden is the percentage of  income a household pays for energy use — a figure that silently contributes to housing costs.

A household that pays more than 6 percent of its monthly income for energy is said to be in "energy poverty." The median energy burden for low-income neighborhoods in Cincinnati was more than 9 percent, according to the GCEA study.

A major contributor to that burden is aging housing stock, with buildings that aren't well insulated or which have inefficient HVAC systems. Lack of knowledge about energy efficiency measures and differing incentives for the high upfront cost of measures fixing those problems also contributes to energy burden, as does poverty itself.

"Energy costs that may be affordable to a middle-class household may not be affordable to a low-income household," the GCEA study explains. "In fact, low-income households spend three times more of their income on energy bills than higher-income households."

Of neighborhoods with significant population, Winton Hills had the highest energy burden at 15 percent, followed by the Villages at Roll Hill, Millvale, West End and Lower Price Hill. Other neighborhoods with low median household incomes were also among the 16 in the city experiencing energy poverty, according to the study.

One of the partners in the pilot, People Working Cooperatively, has been doing energy efficiency work in Cincinnati's low- and moderate-income communities for years.

“We have a long history of providing critical home repairs and services for low-income homeowners and this is an opportunity to focus on renters who need help addressing energy efficiency challenges,” People Working Cooperatively President Jock Pitts said in a news release.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Warm Up Cincy pilot is available free-of-charge to participating households. 

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