Homeowner Marcia Ellis looks at her new boiler with Elevate energy analyst Carrie Donohoe.
Homeowner Marcia Ellis looks at her new boiler with Elevate energy analyst Carrie Donohoe. Credit: Elevate / Courtesy

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Many individuals and households have at least one outdated appliance — a refrigerator, a water heater or a window-mounted air conditioner that they hold onto because of the expense involved with replacing them. Yet the money they save is often more than canceled out by higher utility bills. 

Upgrading outdated appliances can help low-income households stay in their homes by reducing their utility bills — and by extension, lowering their overall housing costs. The money saved can be used toward other necessities such as food or transportation to work or school.

However, it can take years for a new appliance to pay for itself through energy savings. Without incentives, it often simply doesn’t make financial sense for a low-income household to upgrade outdated appliances solely to save on energy bills. This is especially true for renters or homeowners who are unsure about how long they will remain in a given location, or who are unsure about whether they can take new appliances with them when they move. 

The challenge is in bridging the gap to bring the necessary up-front investment in energy-efficient appliances within reach. That’s where organizations like Elevate and Meadows Eastside Community Resource Organization, also known as MECRO, come in. They coordinate resources such as incentives offered by utilities, grants and low-interest loans, and make them available for low-income households to eliminate this dilemma.

Through its headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop, along with offices in downstate Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, Oregon and California, Elevate works to help homeowners and owners of multifamily units across the country obtain financing to improve the energy efficiency in their homes and buildings. MECRO is located on the busy 79th Street commercial corridor of Chicago’s Southeast Side and focuses its services on residents in the community. (The name Meadows in the MECRO acronym is in honor of Rufus and Everlena Meadows, the parents of Sharon “Sy” Lewis, founder and executive director of MECRO.) 

Big savings potential

Through a collaboration with the City of Chicago, ComEd and Elevate, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory utilized its trademarked ResStock tool and place-based data to develop residential energy efficiency strategies for the city’s residential building stock, primarily comprised of bungalows and other single-family homes built before 1942. Through the Chicago Advanced Building Construction project, a series of simulations was executed, which generated up to $49 billion in potential utility bill savings. An especially significant finding was that sizable savings could be achieved through installing heat pumps and other off-the-shelf technologies. 

An old refrigerator uses up to three times as much electricity as a newer, energy-efficient model. Energy-certified clothes dryers use 20% less electricity than a standard dryer. Certified clothes washers require between 40% and 50% less energy and 55% less water to operate than conventional washers. 

Utilities such as ComEd and Ameren in Illinois provide a number of incentives for ratepayers — such as rebates for trade-ins of old appliances — to facilitate the switch for customers to energy-efficient appliances. 

Elevate has a number of funders that provide grants to heavily incentivize or provide upgrades at no cost for homeowners. In addition, in areas where utility incentives aren’t in place, the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund can provide financing, according to Jackie Montesdeoca, director of building electrification for Elevate. 

“There are models where we can have a lender include energy efficiency as part of the overall rehab. We do that in the Chicago area, but that’s a model that can be replicated [in other locations]. … The underwriters or the loan officers know that high-efficiency equipment or adding a little more insulation than code requires is going to make that building more resilient [with] lower operating costs, as opposed to a building that didn’t go through those measures in their rehab,” Montesdeoca said. 

Small changes add up

According to U.S. Census Bureau data cited in a 2020 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, utility costs for poor households averaged 8.1% of their income, versus just 2.3% of income spent by more affluent households on utility bills. 

While the lion’s share of these expenditures was for heating and cooling, household appliances accounted for a significant percentage of utility costs as well. 

A comprehensive energy efficiency upgrade that includes replacing outdated appliances can translate to savings of 30% or more, according to Montesdeoca. 

Yet many eligible households remain unaware of these programs, or have the mistaken belief that they do not qualify, according to Lewis.

“One of the things that I really try to push is that all of these programs are available, [but there is a] lack of information. You would think somebody who lives in Beverly” — a middle-class, racially diverse community on Chicago’s far Southwest Side — “wouldn’t be income-eligible and they wouldn’t be suffering from housing insecurity. They are. It does not matter. There are very affluent neighborhoods where people are suffering. You know, it’s a lot when you’re making a hundred thousand dollars, [but] there are eight people in your house,” Lewis said. 

Reducing utility bills by replacing outdated household appliances is a vital tool in enhancing housing affordability through the knock-on effect in freeing up funds that were formerly needed for those bills — funds that can be used for other necessities that enhance overall housing affordability. Even small improvements, such as installing aerators on faucets or converting incandescent lighting to LEDs, can contribute to cumulative money savings, Lewis said. 

“So, with these little aerators people think, oh, that’s just something cute. No, it’s not. It is saving you water. It’s saving you gallons and gallons and gallons of water. Is it impactful? Yes, absolutely. Will it be able to keep more people in their homes? Absolutely. Because this is now an expense that they do not have to pay on their property, that they can invest on their bills, that they can invest in their property,” Lewis said. 

Nonetheless, many would-be beneficiaries find it difficult to justify the expense to replace a functional refrigerator or water heater. A lack of awareness about available incentives also contributes to resistance. It’s often necessary to educate people about how the return on investment combined with available incentives and other resources actually helps them save money in the long run, Montesdeoca said.

“Owners need a clear expectation of estimated savings related to their upfront investment. We work to make the process easy for them and break down costs along with identifying the funding gap. For a lot of small multifamily owners … these owners don’t have a lot of cash flow to play around with. So if we aren’t bringing incentives, grant dollars, or some kind of financing as a resource it is hard to otherwise make that project work. The best scenario is that we can connect the owner to the problem and the financial tools that can help get to solutions,” Montesdeoca said.

‘You can tell the difference’

Many energy efficiency incentives are geared toward single-family homes, but multi-family building owners and renters also struggle with high utility bills. Energy-efficient upgrades for multifamily units are essential in retaining affordable housing, according to Karen Lusson, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, with offices in Boston and Washington D.C.

“The multifamily building market has always been a larger challenge. With the single family, it’s about reaching the homeowner and convincing the homeowner that this makes sense. Ideally, weatherization [and related] services should be provided at zero cost to the homeowner. In terms of the multifamily building owner, there can be variances in terms of the copays. There can be sliding scale copays for the building owner. But if we’re trying to increase the availability of affordable housing, we want to make sure those incentives are large enough, and those copays aren’t so big that they lose interest, or turn down these opportunities to invest in energy efficiency,” Lusson said.

Both ComEd and Ameren provide incentives for energy-efficient appliances for multifamily units as well as for single-family homes — working in Chicago and surrounding communities in collaboration with organizations like Elevate and MECRO.

Marcia Ellis is the owner of a six-unit property in Chicago’s New City community area located on the city’s Southwest Side. The legacy building, which was constructed in 1924, has been in the family since 1984. Ellis received a free energy assessment through Elevate, a loan through Community Investment Corporation and $44,697 in incentives from ComEd and Peoples Gas Energy Efficiency Programs to cover the cost of lighting retrofits, roof and pipe insulation, bathroom and kitchen aerators, LED lighting, a new high-efficiency boiler and other improvements. The return on investment? An estimated $2,380 in estimated annual savings, not to mention happy tenants. 

MECRO worked with a senior in the community to improve the energy efficiency of her 100-year-old three-flat. Along with weatherstripping, insulation and replacement doors, the dwelling was fitted out with all-new appliances in each unit, according to Lewis. 

“She gets three new air conditioners. … And she’s got a freezer in the basement that you could put a body in. It’s not energy efficient. She got a brand-new freezer. She got a stove and a refrigerator for three units, and a deep freezer. And she had her grandson’s college refrigerator. It’s not energy efficient. So, she got one of those. She got a new furnace and a new water heater. So, every appliance in her house is energy efficient. 

“I visit her from time to time. You can tell the difference. You can literally tell the difference,” Lewis said.

Kicking gas

And while making the conversion from gas or other carbon-based heating fuels to electric increases overall electric bills, making the switch can make up the difference by eliminating a gas bill altogether, according to Emma Baumgart, senior associate for communications at Elevate. 

“With electrification [there] is the added benefit of having no gas bill. And especially in Chicago, People’s Gas has high fixed costs on your bill, where even if you’re not using any gas, you still are paying that monthly charge. And so that’s an added benefit of going fully electric. You still have fixed costs on your electric bill, but it’s just one instead of two. So obviously your electric bill goes up when you are converting to all electric, but by completely removing that fixed cost is another way that electrification can help with affordability,” Baumgart said. 

For Lewis, a lifetime resident of Chicago’s Southeast Side, her work with MECRO in enabling residents to remain in their homes represents one way of investing in the well-being and stability of the community she calls home.

“Those things that impact the quality of life, impact how low-income housing exists in our community and how people are able to stay in their places and live comfortably,” Lewis said.

Audrey Henderson

Audrey is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications. Her coverage focuses on environmental justice and equity.