Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Blacks Have 6th Highest Energy Burden

Milwaukee’s black households pays 7% of their income for energy, 6th worst among 48 cities.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - May 7th, 2016 02:03 pm
Roberson Merriweather faces high energy bills because of a boiler in need of repair and a dilapidated roof. Photo by Wyatt Massey.

Roberson Merriweather faces high energy bills because of a boiler in need of repair and a dilapidated roof. Photo by Wyatt Massey.

Roberson Merriweather, 50, carries his application through the cubicles at Community Advocates, 728 N. James Lovell St., before taking a seat beside the desk of Shirley McClendon, a community advocate. Merriweather’s faded green hat reads “Retired” above a U.S. Army logo. Around his neck hangs a card displaying his Bronze Star and Afghanistan Campaign Medal.

The 30-year Army veteran is at Community Advocates for the second day in a row, this time with the necessary paperwork to apply for weatherization assistance and the county’s Energy Assistance program.

“I’m just trying to stay afloat, get ahead on things,” he said. “I’ve got debts to pay, but I’m working now, trying to get back on my feet” after more than a year of unemployment.

Like many other African-American households in Milwaukee, Merriweather has struggled to pay his energy bills; at one point his heat was turned off. His home’s boiler, which is more than 10 years old, often leaks. A recent report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All found that the city has the sixth highest energy burden in the country for the average African-American household. Milwaukee is also in the top five cities with the greatest difference between city and state energy burdens.

According to the report, which measured 48 cities, African-American households in Milwaukee pay more than 7 percent of their income for energy costs, compared to 4 percent paid by the average city household. The report measures energy burden as a percentage, dividing the household’s total energy spending by gross household income. The data was taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 and 2013 American Housing Survey, including nearly 2,000 homes in Milwaukee.

Community Advocates, 728 N. James Lovell St., is one of several city organizations where residents can apply for energy assistance. Photo by Wyatt Massey.

Community Advocates, 728 N. James Lovell St., is one of several city organizations where residents can apply for energy assistance. Photo by Wyatt Massey.

Maudwella Kirkendoll, Community Advocates chief operating officer, said that the city’s racial segregation adds to the disproportionate energy burden. “The large majority of African-Americans live in neighborhoods where the housing is dilapidated and not weatherized and not energy efficient at all,” he said.

Characteristics of the home, such as poor insulation, inadequate sealing and inefficient appliances, are some of the drivers of a higher energy burden, according to the report. Other factors include unexpected economic changes, inability to pay high upfront costs for energy efficiency measures and a lack of knowledge about support programs.

Merriweather’s application for energy assistance is one of two options residents have to lower their energy bills. About 100,000 We Energies customers apply for assistance each year, said spokesperson Cathy Schulze. The program is available for residents with an income under 60 percent of the state median, which for a household of three is $41,355 a year. The one-time payment program runs between Oct. 1 and May 15.

More than 60,000 residents receive an average credit of between $250 and $550 through the Community Advocates program, which is paid to the energy company, Kirkendoll said. Advocates such as McClendon help residents with the energy assistance application, which includes 23 questions regarding household size, energy usage and monthly income.

These questions may identify other credits residents can apply for. “Usually when a client comes in, we try to cover all the bases,” McClendon said. For Merriweather, that meant applying for the program’s crisis fund to pay for overdue bills. The one-time payment will help him begin to pay off fines and start making payments for a nagging weatherization problem related to his roof.

After serving in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2007 and then working as a trainer at Fort McCoy, Merriweather lost his job and needed to have multiple surgeries. He began receiving letters from the city around the same time stating that his roof violated building codes.

“The fines just kept compounding,” he said. “It just piles up, piles up and piles up.” His heat was shut off for more than a week before Merriweather could borrow money and begin a payment plan with We Energies. “I’m on top of things as much as I can be,” he said.

Weatherization programs are the other option for residents to lower their energy bill. The report notes that raising the energy efficiency of low-income households nationwide to that of the median household would reduce more than a third of the energy burden. The same measures would lower the energy burden by 42 percent and 68 percent for African-American and Latino households, respectively.

“In large part, the issue with the high energy burden is tied to the old housing stock we have in Milwaukee,” Kirkendoll said. “We have a lot of old homes and the heating is going right out the windows.” Merriweather’s home on Burleigh Street was built in 1921. The average build year for a residential property in his 53210 ZIP code is 1926, according to city data.

Residents who qualify for energy assistance can apply for the Social Development Commission weatherization program. The repairs are free and include adding insulation, sealing the home, as well as replacing furnaces and refrigerators that are not energy efficient. La Casa de Esperanza and Partners for Community Development do similar work with the energy assistance program.

SDC weatherizes 500 to 700 homes each year with the help of 30 contractors and a $5 million budget. However, Jim Gambon, SDC residential services manager, said progress is slow.

“We know that our program is not touching — not even close to touching — all the homes that are potentially eligible,” Gambon said. “At this point there are approximately 40,000 applications for energy assistance … it could be closer to 80,000. So that’s a deep pool for weatherization.”

Residents may also apply for a loan up to $15,000 for energy saving measures through the Milwaukee Energy Efficiency program, which partners with Summit Credit Union. Erick Shambarger, director of the city’sEnvironmental Collaboration Office, said the program is designed for individuals who do not qualify for weatherization assistance but cannot afford the cost of energy efficient improvements. “Essentially that allows them to pay for improvements up to 15 years while saving money on their energy bills,” he said.

Merriweather’s home could be eligible for weatherization from La Casa de Esperanza. An outreach worker from La Casa scheduled a visit to his home to see what work is required, which could be to replace the boiler. “Any assistance with weatherization, I will take it.”

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

20 thoughts on “Blacks Have 6th Highest Energy Burden”

  1. Paul says:

    Hillary Clintons energy plan calls for the raising of energy costs just like Obama. All this to fight the hoax of “man-made” climate change

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    Paul where did you study science? What advanced degrees in it do you have?

    Trump would reduce everyone’s energy costs to ZERO. Literally no one would pay anything for energy. He’d just use his business skills and negotiate with energy companies and problem solved. Just……..that.

  3. AG says:

    Without going off track by getting into a debate on amphomorphic climate change, the fact remains that by pushing for expensive technologies and high cost CO2 controls we are pushing up the cost of energy. This hits the lowest income energy users the hardest.

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    And what AG there are no costs whatsoever due to the effects of climate change? Even T. Boone Pickens supports alternative energy. Not to mention what the hell is Trump’s plan to address this?

  5. Vincent Hanna says:

    I’d also like to know Paul’s source for his initial claim. I’m sure it’s not Fox News or talk radio.

  6. AG says:

    Depends… the costs predicted in the early 2000’s had half the world as unlivable and costs staggering. Now in 2016, we’re told this is still going to happen but in 2050-2100. So it’s going to be expensive, obviously.

    I’d like to keep the future in mind and the things we think might happen, but I don’t want to forget about the hardships that people are having right now that we know about for sure.

  7. Casey says:

    Milwaukee should’ve socialized our energy utilities back in the 20s or 30s.

    I would like to see a significant increase in taxing gasoline for non-commercial vehicles and use that to not only maintain our infrastructure but also either invest in alternate forms of energy or help subsidize the energy usage of low income families.

    Also….WE Energies is the 2nd most profitable company in this state (2nd behind JCI) maybe instead of profiting so much (profits are good) they could be mandated to increase the amount they spend on making families’ homes more efficient. Not just for those in poverty.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    Fair stance AG. Can’t really quibble with it. A balance is wise (as Pickens said in an NPR interview I listened to yesterday). I just can’t imagine Trump being the answer to energy concerns (and that’s not meant as a defense of Clinton).

  9. AG says:

    Casey, I don’t argue with you that WE Energies, as a utility, is allowed to make too much profit as a percentage of revenue. But just out of curiosity, what metric do you use to call them the second most profitable company in the state?

    I will have to whole heartedly disagree on your stance for the gas tax. Raising taxes on every day items like gasoline is regressive and hits the lowest income hardest. You’re only going to hurt the same people this article talks about. Plus higher gas prices hurts our disposable income and thus our local economies very hard. I understand the desire to cut automobile use and find money for roads and whatnot… but you’re doing a whole lot of harm to do what you believe to be some good.

  10. AG says:

    Vincent, your response surprised me. Usually if I make any sort of mention of our not fully understanding the world’s climate or future consequences of climate change people stop listening to the rest of my thoughts and lump me in with deniers and skeptics. I think it’s reasonable to look for that balance while we figure it out. Further, finding a balance between two parties that recognize the need for balance is far easier than having a conversation between climate change zealots and climate change deniers. Both groups that I think are blind to reality and causing far more harm to the planet and economies.

  11. Vincent Hanna says:

    I have no patience for deniers like Paul, but I know you aren’t a denier. Pickens, even though I find his Trump support alarming, made some good points (and his interview is still fresh in my mind). He doesn’t dispute that climate change is real and he fully embraces alternative energy (he talked about wind and solar). I believe he also funds alternative energy research and he calls himself an environmentalist. So he has one eye on the future. But he also says he is a realist and is also worried about the present. For example, of the 94 million barrels of oil that are produced worldwide daily, 70% is used as transportation fuel. How do you replace that right now? Seems like a fair question to me.

  12. Casey says:

    I might have to retract that….I’m not finding the reference that I swear I read just a few weeks ago. Fiserv was ranked 3..I think.

    Yes, taxing just about anything other than income is regressive. Some taxes are there to discourage some types of behavior. Excessive driving (alone most of the time) tearing up infrastructure, increasing the demand there by increasing the cost of petro based fuel should be discouraged.

  13. Paul says:

    Vincent, my source would be Obamas and Clintons own words. I hope you were being sarcastic with your Trump ideas.

  14. Vincent Hanna says:

    Do you believe Trump’s energy policies are superior to Clinton’s? Why or why not?

  15. Paul says:

    Vincent, Trumps views and ideas change every day, not sure what his policy is today. I do know Clintons will result in job losses, higher energy costs and higher taxes.

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    You know no such thing unless you are claiming to be a clairvoyant. That wouldn’t surprise me.

  17. Paul says:

    Vincent, she said she would shut down the coal industry, that would result in thousands of lost jobs, other energy sources are more costly or are getting tax dollars. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to see what will happen if she gets her way.

  18. Vincent Hanna says:

    So the age old conundrum of the devil you know or the devil you don’t (since the lack of coherent policy you reference above applies to pretty much every issue for Trump and not just energy).

  19. Vincent Hanna says:

    I suppose not voting or writing someone in are also options, but I have you pegged for a Trump guy.

  20. Paul says:

    Vincent, you are wrong, I will not vote Trump or Clinton.

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