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Climate action plans don't leave low-income households behind

Dennis Schroeder
National Renewable Energy Lab
Installing insulation to make a home more energy efficient.

Some cities in Michigan are putting together climate change action plans. Part of that is making everything more energy efficient in order to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. One of the big concerns is making sure low-income households are not left behind.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mike Garfield is the Director of the Ecology Center.

The state requires Michigan’s big utility companies to offer rebates for energy efficiency upgrades in homes. There are also state and federal programs aimed at encouraging energy efficiency.

“The best application of those funds is to direct them to the people who need them most,” said Mike Garfield, director of the non-profit Ecology Center, adding, “There are plenty of folks in this country, plenty of folks in Michigan, in all of our communities who suffer from energy vulnerability. Their heating bills or electric bills might be so high that they're faced with decisions about whether or not to buy food or medicine or pay their gas bill.”

Programs such as Washtenaw County’s Weatherization Assistance Program help people on lower or fixed incomes tighten up their homes.

Marilyn Fulton is retired and lives in Ypsilanti. She didn’t know about the help she could get until recently.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Marilyn Fulton in front of her home in Ypsilanti. She recently received help from Washtenaw County's Weatherization Assistance Program.

“Oh, they've done so much. They've plugged up holes in my house. They made my house air tight which is something that I am not used to and it's a pleasant surprise. And our heating bill has gone down considerably,” she said as she pointed out the work.

She says during the winter she kept her thermostat at 68 degrees. Before the work was done, on the coldest days, she had to bundle up inside the house to stay warm.

“It was getting outrageous with the heat loss. And in the summer, I have the air conditioning and it was really getting out of hand. And I'm retired. So every penny counts,” she said.

Fulton owns her house. But for rental homes or apartments it can be a different story. There’s no incentive for a renter to pay to insulate or buy expensive equipment to improve the place. There’s no incentive for landlords to buy high efficiency furnaces or insulate more if they don’t pay the utility bills.

Mike Garfield at the Ecology Center says the government needs to change that.

“A city can address that kind of problem by investing in its older building stock, in the housing, whether it's multifamily or single family detached buildings, in the housing stock where low-income populations live,” he said.

That will take some negotiating. 

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Missy Stults is the Sustainability and Innovations Manager for the City of Ann Arbor.

Missy Stults is the Sustainability and Innovations Manager for the City of Ann Arbor. That city is working on a multi-faceted plan that includes requiring rental units to be energy efficient.

“The objective is, if you want to rent in Ann Arbor, you have to prove that that facility meets a certain efficiency level. And we’re not going to determine how. It gives a lot of freedom to figure out what you want to do to hit that target. But we're working to ensure that you can't rent if it's not an efficient place,” she said.

The city plans to work with landlords and renters to decide what that efficiency level should be.

A major landlord group indicated it had not been contacted by the city yet. Chris Heaton with the Washtenaw Area Apartment Association says generally, landlords are in favor of these kind of developments. They just want to have a voice in the process.

There is a concern about rent going up too much because of the expense. But in Boulder, Colorado’s similar program, rents stayed at market rate even after efficiency upgrades.

Missy Stults with the City of Ann Arbor says communities owe it to residents who need help and they owe it to future generations. She has a four-year-old daughter she's thinking about.

“We are the first generation that knows pretty robustly what climate change will mean in the future. And we're also the first generation to meaningfully do something about that and to change that future. And so to me there's no greater imperative than to do everything that we can to combat climate change. And I can't go home and look at my daughter and not believe that's true,” Stults said.

With recent scientific findings that climate change is going to have a greater effect sooner than was thought, the Ann Arbor goal of a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in five years seems to fall short. They are now looking instead at a goal of a 35% reduction in emissions in that same five year period.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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