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Black Communities Struggle with Soaring Energy Costs

Energy and food prices are skyrocketing. Some people are forgoing necessities, simply because they costs too much. Some black communities have been hit particularly hard because residents pay a larger percentage of their incomes on energy costs.

Jori Lewis looks at the reasons and how some homeowners are adjusting.

JORI LEWIS: Darlene Manswell is doing a constantly juggling.

Okoh examines Bradford's roof: Photo: Jori LewisDARLENE MANSWELL: I’ve been playing this catch-up game with everybody, so yeah.

JORI LEWIS: There’s the variable rate mortgage payment for the house she shares with her mom. Their East Flatbush, Brooklyn home is in foreclosure.

There’s a lawsuit with a contractor who left the kitchen a torn-out mess. And she’s behind on her electricity bills….almost $3,000 behind.

And so the power company came calling.

DARLENE MANSWELL: They basically came to shut it off and I’m, you know, just bargaining with people. They wanted the full amount. I didn’t have the full amount. They wanted half which was like $1,500 when they added it up. Like I don’t have $1,500. So I sent them $500. I mean gave them whatever I could afford to give them. And they said that’s not, we’re still going to shut it off.

JORI LEWIS: So Manswell applied for the federally funded home energy assistance program, but they told her she had already maxed out on aid — at $125. She eventually negotiated a payment plan with the company after a social service agency intervened. Her 72-year-old mother is an acute asthmatic who needs electricity to power an emergency nebulizer, a kind of super-inhaler.

But now, Manswell has to deal with the gas company and the heating oil company for the winter ahead.

She regrets that the bills got out of control. But she says it wasn’t just the mortgage or the kitchen lawsuit.

DARLENE MANSWELL: The prices got high in addition to struggling. But when you’re struggling at one point, when the bill used to be 100 and something dollars, we can pay it. But now that that the bill is $200 or $300, it’s just really high now.

JORI LEWIS: I met Darlene Manswell in May at a meeting in downtown Brooklyn for people going through home foreclosures. Many of them were from Manswell’s neighborhood or other parts of Central Brooklyn. It’s an area with a large number of black people, both black Americans and African and Caribbean immigrants. I asked the group if anyone was having problems with electricity or natural gas shutoffs. Almost everyone in the room raised their hands.

Many Americans suspect that the country’s sagging economy is already in a recession. But the prices of energy continue its upward march.

Andrew Hoerner researches energy use in minority communities for the sustainability think tank Redefining Progress and the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative. He says these energy prices are bad news for everyone, but they are particularly bad news for black communities.

According to Hoerner, black people pay more of their incomes on home energy and heating expenses than other people. Hoerner says there are a couple of reasons for it. First, black people, on average, have lower incomes.

ANDREW HOERNER: Energy is like food or shelter. It’s a necessity. And people at lower incomes spend a higher percentage of their income on necessities. So price increases hit lower-income people harder.

JORI LEWIS: So, he looked at Census data on energy expenditures broken down by race and income level. He found that black people at the lowest income level were spending 13 percent of their budgets on energy. The wider non-black population at the same income level was spending only nine percent on energy.

But, black people at middle and higher income levels still spend more of their incomes on energy than non-blacks in all but the highest income brackets. So, if utilities are practicing color-blind pricing, and they are, what’s the secret?

ANDREW HOERNER: I think we’re safe in saying that it has to do with lower quality housing stock for African American communities.

JORI LEWIS: Lower quality housing stock. That means if the windows don’t fit, if the insulation is poor or if there are cracks in the floors, your house is losing energy. And you’re still charged for it.

And black people are more likely to be renters instead of owners. In 2007, only 47 percent of black people owned their homes. That’s compared to about 70 percent of whites. And renters have less control over repairs or improvements.

Frank Stewart is the director of the Association of Blacks in Energy. They collaborated with Hoerner to study this issue a few years ago. He says this is partially a legacy of racism.

FRANK STEWART: You have a long tradition in this country of redlining which put African-Americans in homes in areas that were understood to be minority communities where oft-times they were inner-city, less-well-maintained, older homes.

JORI LEWIS: Stewart and Hoerner say that they don’t have any data on exactly why black people continue to live in such situations. But they have a few suppositions.

FRANK STEWART: It would seem logical that if access to credit is a problem in African-American communities, and it is, then that might also have something to do with how much or how frequently or what kind of renovations and upgradings or maintenance can be done or has been done.

JORI LEWIS: But even without definite reasons for these gaps in utility costs, landmark high energy prices are forcing black communities to find ways to adjust.

Sonja Ebron runs a company called BlackEnergy in Georgia. They act as energy brokers and negotiate lower natural gas rates for individual consumers. Their goal is to get all people, but especially black people, greater access to cheaper energy. Ebron says she saw these oil and energy pricing problems coming a mile away.

SONJA EBRON: In the 70s when we had a mini oil crisis, we had a rationing of supplies. We’re not going to do much rationing in this crisis. I think the rationing is going to come from pricing. Which means that lower income people will simply be priced out of access to energy. It is even more important, it’s urgent in fact to make the transition to less energy use.

JORI LEWIS: Stephanie Bradford wants to make that transition. She owns a home in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s a neighborhood known for its brownstone houses. Hers is three stories, full of gleaming wood and polished fixtures…but it’s drafty.

STEPHANIE BRADFORD: These times are serious. So whatever way you have to save money, you have to save it. This winter was horrible. It was a matter of either heating the house or eating. And it was really a choice.

JORI LEWIS: She made it through. But she knows she has to save more money some kind of way next winter. Bradford lost her job a few years ago and has been struggling to make payments on her fixed-rate mortgage. But she also qualifies for low-income weatherization assistance.

CHARLES OKOH: So, this is a typical brownstone.

JORI LEWIS: Enter Charles Okoh, a weatherization engineer with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. When he says typical, that’s code word for energy hog.

CHARLES OKOH: As you can see, the front of the building was fixed but the interior wasn’t touched. So, the problem is interior. It’s just like somebody, a sick person who takes care of the outside so we’re trying to correct the inside to match the exterior.

JORI LEWIS: But he attacked it with everything he had. Okoh and his team changed the windows, blew insulation into the stone walls, checked the boiler, replaced the shower heads and put in new energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs.

Wendell Rice is the director of the weatherization program. He says that by doing this, they hope to help people like Stephanie Bradford weather the economic the downturn.

WENDELL RICE: She’s doing the right thing, she’s not dodging the bullet by getting the house weatherized and that’s going to cut the costs. And if we do what we’re supposed to do here, her bills got to be cheaper.

JORI LEWIS: Bradford says that Okoh and the others showed her so much.

STEPHANIE BRADFORD: He showed me where air was escaping. And this is the most wonderful thing I learned. From the sockets. That when the socket has blackness coming out means air’s escaping. Who knew that? I didn’t know that. Here I am thinking that was a fashion statement. (laughs)

JORI LEWIS: Her house took several days to renovate and cost about $8,000.

Wendell Rice says he wishes they could help more people. But these programs are income dependent and there’s a waiting list…a year or two long.

WENDELL RICE: We have a backlog. It’s that we’re trying to always figure out a method to do them faster and get to the people faster. See, people apply and they get frustrated. ‘Well, I applied two years ago, three years ago, when are you going to get to me. And trust me when I go to Albany, I got a big mouth. And I’m always begging. No, that’s not enough money, I say. I live in Bed-Stuy and we need more money.

JORI LEWIS: The cost of home heating this winter is only going to go up, at least that’s what the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association estimates. And here on the streets of Brooklyn, Wendell Rice wants everyone to be prepared. He says their work could prevent people from spending too much of their money on electricity and heating bills. But of course, weatherization is not the only answer. It’s just one tool to boost energy efficiency and target systemic bias.

For the Online NewsHour, this is Jori Lewis.

Produced with the National Minority Consortia in partnership with the Online NewsHour.

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