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Sustainable Pittsburgh

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Pittsburgh, PA

The High Cost of Energy: How a Community Can Protect their Most Vulnerable Residents

People living at or below the poverty line are more likely to live in older housing with leaky windows and doors, and poorly insulated walls that waste energy, saddling them with much higher energy costs than those in upper income brackets.  There are several ways that municipalities and community-based organizations can help mitigate this challenge.  Options include having well-crafted and enforced occupancy regulations and helping to connect those in need to energy efficiency assistance programs.  Serving in this role advances a community’s sustainable development by improving the lives of residents, the environment, and the local economy.

Preventing housing from falling into disrepair can solve the problem of unreasonably high energy costs before it becomes one.  Well managed and institutionalized code enforcement is an essential first step.  Adopting and effectively enforcing the International Property Maintenance Code, as suggested in the “Sustainable Neighborhoods” section of the Sustainable Pennsylvania Community Certification, can prevent poorly heated and/or ventilated spaces from being rented to unsuspecting residents.  Community leaders may find homeowners on fixed or limited incomes need assistance to make their homes code compliant or more energy efficient.

Working with and connecting residents to organizations like Conservation Consultants Inc. (CCI), Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, and Habitat for Humanity can benefit struggling low income homeowners with energy efficiency upgrades.  In addition, both major regional electric utilities, Duquesne Light and First Energy (Penelec, Penn Power, and West Penn Power), have programs that can offset the costs of energy upgrades.  As a stopgap measure, federal programs such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), can provide relief to families living in homes that may be at risk of an outage.  Having these resources available through a community newsletter, website, knowledgeable staff, and community-sponsored events can make a world of difference.

By administering excellent code enforcement and serving as the conduit to publicly available energy efficiency programs, conscientious leaders can conserve energy, mitigate carbon emissions and protect their community’s most vulnerable residents.  In addition, reducing energy consumption community-wide serves everyone by improving public health with improved air quality and ensuring residents have more income to spend in the local community.  For information on how to incorporate these or other community sustainability recommendations please visit the Sustainable Pennsylvania Community Certification, reference the Library of Sustainable Municipal Policies and Practices, or contact Jim Price at