Teacher Zia Hellman works with virtual students during the first week of in-person classes at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School in BaltimorE – 11/20/20 (Rosem Morton/New York Times)
In recent weeks, parents across Maryland have gotten the news they had hoped they wouldn’t hear: most in-person schools will be closed indefinitely, which means most students will continue learning from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Virtual learning has laid bare a deep-rooted disparity low-income Marylanders face: the unjust distribution of energy and housing costs, especially for Marylanders of color. We are compelling many children in disadvantaged communities to turn bedrooms into classrooms — assuming there is an available bedroom in their home — and to study in unhealthy buildings with drafty windows, poor insulation, broken heating systems, shoddy lighting and much more.
Moreover, parents who may have lost their jobs due to the recession may have received disconnection notices from their electric or natural gas company. Maryland’s Public Service Commission has permitted utilities to shut off service for nonpayment, and more than 290,000 Marylanders are in arrears with BGE and Pepco alone.
Low-income Marylanders should apply for Low Income Home Energy Assistance funding as soon as possible and call their utilities, explain their financial hardship and seek a long-term payment plan. Unfortunately, many families are not aware of these options and are scared to contact their utility provider if their payments are past due. Without immediate action from state leaders to address this problem, a devastating number of struggling households will fall through the cracks and be disconnected this winter.
Energy is a regressive cost that falls hardest on Marylanders who can least afford it. As Maryland’s affordable housing stock ages, so too does the heating, air conditioning and insulation our 450,000 low-income residents need for a healthy home. Energy efficient upgrades can ease this burden, but building owners often forego the investment due to cost.
This cycle of inequality means Maryland’s low-income households pay 550% more of their income to energy costs than others, and the majority of those households are Marylanders of color. Nationally, low-income residents pay 8% of their income to energy costs, but in Maryland they pay 13%.
Maryland must confront this disparity with short-term and long-term solutions. We urge the state to take two concrete steps.
In the short-term, the Public Service Commission should suspend utility disconnections until 30 days after Gov. Larry Hogan declares an end to the COVID State of Emergency. The commission should also provide Marylanders a utility payment grace period of 60 days beyond the end of the utility shut off moratorium.
Longer-term, the General Assembly should strengthen state energy efficiency programs like the Multifamily Energy Efficiency & Housing Affordability program and the Low Income Energy Efficiency Program. At current funding levels, it will take 130 years for these programs to make energy efficient retrofits in all Maryland low-income households. That level of neglect is unacceptable.
In the next legislative session, lawmakers could require utilities to achieve energy consumption savings equal to 1% of annual low-income electricity demand in Maryland. The savings would be achieved through state-funded energy efficient retrofits in 32,000 income-eligible homes annually, lowering their energy burden, and preserving Maryland’s affordable housing stock — not to mention millions of dollars in Medicaid by reducing health impacts of poor indoor air quality and thermal comfort.
For Black and Latinx households, 42% and 68% of their excess energy burden, respectively, would be eliminated just by making their homes as efficient as the average home. With Maryland lawmakers’ support, we could upgrade every eligible home in Maryland and turn these racial disparities into a pathway for equity in less than 15 years.
If we expect our children to turn their bedrooms into classrooms, the rest of us need to be problem solvers, too. Let’s uproot Maryland’s energy and housing inequalities with smart, sustained solutions that achieve healthier homes and create opportunities by assuring energy efficiency for all.
Ruth Ann Norton (email@example.com) is President and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, and Raymond Nevo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is State Policy and Equity Advocate at the National Housing Trust.