Fuel Poverty Means Greater Risk of Unsafe Homes

Fuel poverty equates to greater risk of exposure to cold, elements and carbon monoxide poisoning as access to good, affordable housing keeps dropping as homeless and slum conditions magnify.

By Rebecca Martin

December 15th marks the release of the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s new film “The Hand of God” for streaming on Netflix after a brief theatrical preview this December. The film recounts the events of the night that Sorrentino lost his family to carbon monoxide poisoning while he attended a soccer match and his journey into filmmaking. The 1980’s tragedy changed the seventeen-year-old Sorrentino’s life profoundly and we are interested to see the impact of the film on carbon monoxide awareness. Unfortunately the vast majority of those whose lives are impacted by carbon monoxide poisoning rarely get a chance to tell their stories and the issues of carbon monoxide poisoning remain a deadly part of our human condition in a fuel reliant world.

Cold Homes Equals Fuel Poverty

Just as carbon dioxide exposure is a global threat to the most impoverished areas worldwide, so is carbon monoxide most threatening to the impoverished segments of our population in the developed world. The term ‘fuel poverty’ is used to describe the conditions under which certain underprivileged people exist daily in first world countries.

Fuel Poverty

Fuel Poverty leads to greatly increased health risks, including carbon monoxide poisoning as lower income landlords don’t take keep property to minimum safe standards.

“Fuel poverty exists when a household is unable to afford adequate energy services in the home on their present income. It includes all uses of energy – not just heating – and the standards to be obtained are what is needed, not what is being achieved.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/fuel-poverty

Fuel poverty has an initial health impact on the population. This exists in terms of the risks of cold homes in a very real and present sense through cold-related health issues, health risks and cold-related deaths. These risks include a greater possibility of developing cardio-respiratory conditions due to the strain on the cardio-respiratory system brought about by lower temperatures.

“The central role of housing quality in the development of cardio-respiratory conditions is further evidenced by excess winter mortality being three times higher in cold homes as compared to warm homes (Wilkinson et al., 2001) and the excess being largely attributable to circulatory and respiratory conditions (ONS, 2016).” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/fuel-poverty

Mold is more likely to develop in colder homes as well. This poses a risk for both the very young and the elderly especially, often leading to further respiratory problems. While it is widely believed that improved housing is one of the most critical elements in improving indoor air quality during the colder months; this solution is many years in the making and may never be fully realized. Those living at or below the poverty level are more likely to reside in older buildings with older boilers and be more at risk for potential carbon monoxide exposure even if fuel poverty is not the most present and concerning health hazard.

Who does Fuel Poverty affect?

Approximately 14.5% of people living in the United States fall below the official poverty line. This means that 45.3 million people are living below the federal poverty line with incomes below $11,892 for individuals and $23,836 for families. In addition, 97.3 million people are defined as low income, making under $47,700 for a family of four. These numbers are based on the most current US Census.  https://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Poverty-Fact-Sheet-Feb-2015-final.pdf

There is a disparity in the percentages experiencing poverty in non-white groups.

“Nearly 1 in 3 Native Americans (29.2%), over 1 in 4 African Americans (27.2%), 1 in 4 Hispanic/Latinos (23.5%), 1 in 10 Asians (10.5%) and 1 in 10 non-Hispanic whites (9.6%) live below the federal poverty line. Among foreign born, non-citizens the poverty rate is 22.8%.” https://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Poverty-Fact-Sheet-Feb-2015-final.pdf

There are approximately 44 million rental households in the United States. 10.8 million of those are considered low income or below the poverty line. 48% of extremely low income renters are the seniors or those with a disability. While 6% of white households are extremely low income renters, 20% of Black rental households are at or below the poverty line. Black renters also make up a statistically high percentage of rentals as well, up to 34% of the total rental market. https://reports.nlihc.org/gap/about

Lack of affordable rentals in the United States is also a problem with only 37 affordable rentals existing for every 100 potential renters. In high population areas this problem becomes worse with around 20 or less affordable rental options existing for every 100 potential renters.

Coronavirus brought an overall softening in the rental market in 2020, but those drops in rental prices were mostly confined to luxury apartments according to a housing study by Harvard, sponsored by Habitat for Humanity. https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/state-nations-housing-2020

The report pointed to several obstacles to raising the number of affordable units of housing; low-density zoning restrictions, excessive parking requirements and high development fees. Land use regulations have had some impact on developer costs as the value of land has increased dramatically in recent years.

The racial gap in home ownership continues to persist.

“That gap is now more than 30%, the largest it’s been since 1983. While white household homeownership increased slightly to 73.3% in 2019, the Black household homeownership rate remained virtually flat at 42.8%. The homeownership rate for Hispanic households was 46.3%, and for Asian households 57.3%.” https://www.habitat.org/costofhome/2020-state-nations-housing-report-lack-affordable-housing

Fertile Economic Climate for Slumlords

Coronavirus also had an impact in 2020 on non-white households. A higher percentage of non-white households experienced a loss of income during the pandemic and subsequently made up a higher percentage of those suffering from housing insecurity, or the fear of losing their homes. This is a prime time for negligent landlords to cash in on fears of homelessness going into the winter of 2021.

A recent story in The Providence Journal recounts the story of a building at 111 Summer Street on the city of Providence’s South Side. Tenants had complained of a lack of heat, vermin infestation and fire code violations.

“Records from the city’s Department of Inspection and Standards show 27 violations were discovered in January, including an unmaintained sprinkler system, no smoke alarms, a lack of fire escapes in some units, gas cans stored in the basement, and an open elevator shaft.” https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/local/2021/11/26/south-providence-ri-tenants-renters-losing-housing-slumlords-111-summer-street/6401694001/

In September the building changed hands making the new owners responsible for addressing code violations. Their plans include major renovations along with a rent hike. Although a recent inspection showed that fire code violations had been adequately addressed, tenants stated that although the heat issue appeared to have been addressed while the inspection was going on, the heat was turned off once the inspection was over. Tenants were relying on space heaters which reported were costing them $75 per day to run and subsequently many were choosing no heat whatsoever. The new owners imposed new rent structures which doubled the existing rent in some cases with future increases to follow. The month to month lease agreements offer little protection for renters. Upon release of the story all of the tenants had been given orders to vacate within a three week period.

This story is all too common in larger municipalities where investment potentials are overshadowing renter needs. But the search for affordable housing and the failures to meet the need are present all across the United States

Middle America – Slumlords go Mobile

The Florence Commons is a community of 300 mobile homes, mostly single-wide and valued at under $30,000 situated outside of Nashville, TN. It is part of a billion dollar real estate empire which owns more than 200 mobile home parks across the United States. .

“The occupants of some will tell you: The floors buckle. The ceilings crack. The doors don’t shut right. Their homes are sinking.”https://www.providencejournal.com/story/business/automotive/2019/02/18/billion-dollar-empire-made-from-mobile-homes/5943105007/

Stockbridge Capital has provided growing returns for its investors mostly due to its willingness to increase rents. Amazingly the firm received $1.3 billion in financing through Fannie Mae under the premise that they were addressing the affordable housing problem. This acquisition of US homes, standard and mobile, is a growing concern in 2021. Even though the mobile owners may own their mobile homes, they are charged rent for the lot to sit them on. Because it is very costly to move a mobile home, renters have little recourse than to pay for the increases in lot rentals.

“The residents at Florence Commons must pay in other ways, too. Rent checks that are six days late incur a 10 percent fee and a threat of quick eviction. If residents fail to cut the grass, the park managers threaten them with fees of $100 or more, residents said. An aggressive towing service has forced some residents to pay $200 or more to recover their cars.”

Stockbridge Capital contends that it is proud of their role in providing affordable housing. They do not see the dangers of homes settling as particularly unusual. Vanessa Jasinski, vice president of marketing for Yes Communities says: “it is not uncommon for manufactured homes to settle and experience issues like these. This is true also of site-built homes.”

Even though we are aware that damages occurring from cracking in the roof of a dwelling can impact the distribution of airflow and affect heating sources, Fannie Mae continues to provide funding for these companies to continue to buy up mobile home tracts. This, in spite of an increase of 87% in operating income for these entities between 2004 and 2018. Profits directly associated to rent increases and inflated fines for infractions. Some residents nationwide complain at the disintegration of such communities and also a hesitance from the management to address area maintenance. One such tenant stated:

“They’re almost like slumlords,” she said. “If you point something out, they’re just like . . . whatever. They just want the rent.”https://www.providencejournal.com/story/business/automotive/2019/02/18/billion-dollar-empire-made-from-mobile-homes/5943105007/

These two instances in widely divergent areas of the country point out the direction affordable housing has gone in the past few years. City slumlords deferring maintenance and often selling out for gentrification, while more rural communities are being targeted by large investment firms concerned with a monetary bottomline and pleasing investors.

Solutions for Affordable Housing to Reduce Fuel Poverty

According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, one of the primary barriers to affordable housing is a needed revamp to housing regulations. The City of Minneapolis and the State of Oregon have virtually eliminated single family zoning allowing for the construction of multi-family units in what have been traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

“By rezoning lots that currently accommodate only one single-family house to allow duplexes and triplexes,” says Andrea Brennan, Minneapolis’s Housing Policy and Development Director, “Minneapolis effectively triples the housing capacity of some neighborhoods.”https://ssir.org/articles/entry/innovative_solutions_for_the_housing_crisis

This is a terribly difficult issue. On one hand we have homeowners living in traditionally single family home neighborhoods faced with the construction, added traffic and parking needs, pressure on schools and other concerns vs those with a clear view of the need for affordable housing and a reduction in the propagation of slumlords who are profiting by the lack of affordable housing.  All sides may be swept away as the need for affordable housing reaches a crisis point.

Some cities are looking at improved inspection and approval times for approving units in single family areas. This would involve potential landlords meeting compliance faster for rental units in their homes, including basement apartments. This method is being looked at in cities like San Francisco. Boston has instituted a senior/student collaboration to connect university students with seniors thus providing housing for students and extra income for seniors.

Others are looking at ways to increase the speed of construction through innovative modular construction, thus increasing the number of available units becoming available in shorter periods of time. One of the benefits of this approach is that it helps keep housing costs down by increasing availability.

Other approaches to home security involve addressing the availability of affordable mortgages and expanding education about credit scores and mortgage qualification.

Affordable housing trusts are also being used by some states and municipalities. New Jersey is one of the states which vowed for 100% funding for its housing trust.

“Public investments like this have helped non-profit community developers contribute $500 million annually to New Jersey’s economy by creating jobs, affordable homes, and generating tax revenue,” stated Staci Berger, president of Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “Housing affordability is an enormous concern for New Jersey residents.”https://salud-america.org/6-emerging-ways-cities-can-solve-the-affordable-housing-crisis/

In addition to municipal bonds and creating other incentives such as tax incentives, states and municipalities can create funding to encourage the construction of low income housing. With many the concern is that while more populated areas are in need of workers, they are also battling the issue of how to house workers.

Traditionally, those surviving at a poverty level or below in income have been delegated to areas which are primarily occupied by those with similar means. One of the benefits of spreading workers throughout the community is the elimination of areas which cost us money in the long run through lack of opportunity.

How does Fuel Poverty relate to Carbon Monoxide?

As long as there is a severe lack of affordable housing, there will be inadequate and sometimes dangerous housing. For more on how carbon monoxide poisoning occurs in rental apartments, click here.  Low income housing in population centers are more likely to be within older buildings. And older buildings have older boilers. Under the ownership of a slumlord, essential maintenance is often neglected. And this creates scenarios that have the potential to turn deadly. Older buildings are often notorious for lack of even basic safeguards such as detectors or adequate escape routes.

There are certain factors in the population which place one more at risk. We are looking at increased endangerment to the elderly and disabled who are more likely to be living at or below the poverty line. We are seeing that non-white populations have hit a plateau as far as escaping low income rentals for home ownership and are feeling the impact in much greater numbers than the white population. It is also a concern that we haven’t seen a true picture of where the United States is sitting during the pandemic and beyond as the level of impact is only being fully documented at this time.

Our president was recently criticized for stating that Americans were looking at a nearly 50% level of those residing at low income level, but statistics are supporting this statement if we include everyone at or below the poverty line with those living with what is termed extreme low income. Home security is a concern going forward that will take many innovative ideas to address and a hard look at what we have come to accept as traditional housing. Unacceptable housing will always be an issue when individuals and families are spending 30-50% of their income for housing alone.






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