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UC finds disparities in energy efficiency in multifamily housing

Some families spend 20 percent of budget on energy bills

University of Cincinnati researchers have joined with the city of Cincinnati in a step toward making multifamily housing units more energy efficient, which can lower costs for tenants and reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions. 

Amanda Webb headshot

Assistant Professor Amanda Webb

Amanda Webb, assistant professor of architectural engineering, and David Moore, graduate research assistant and civil engineering master’s student, identified energy inefficiencies and discovered inequities while taking stock of the city’s multifamily residential buildings. Their findings are detailed in the report “Understanding Cincinnati’s multifamily housing stock: An analysis to improve access to energy efficiency for low-income households.” The report highlights the need to improve energy efficiency and reduce the household energy burden, which is the percentage of income spent on energy costs. 

“Data is a prerequisite for action. Without good data, it’s very difficult to make good decisions about what to do with funding and where to target outreach for energy efficiency,” Webb said.

Unlike home owners, renters are at the mercy of landlords to make any improvements that would save money on their monthly bills. Uninsulated walls, drafty windows or an old HVAC system can result in uncomfortable living spaces and high utility bills, which can place a disproportionate burden on tenants and potentially exacerbate poverty, health issues and housing insecurity. 

Map of the city of Cincinnati neighborhoods that indicates some residents of multifamily buildings are experiencing a disproportionately higher energy burden than others.

This map shows where Cincinnati residents living in multifamily housing are experiencing the greatest energy burden.

Webb and Moore collected data showing the wide range of size, construction type and age of all of Cincinnati’s multifamily residential buildings in every neighborhood; the income level of residents; and specific utility usage and cost. Multifamily housing represents 31 percent of Cincinnati’s residential building square footage, with 66 percent of those structures located in low-income areas. 

Their research identifies the buildings and neighborhoods where tenants are experiencing the greatest energy burden, which in some cases shows that residents are paying up to 20 percent of their income on their energy bills. The data also shows buildings with the highest energy cost per square foot. 

“People’s energy burden is not made equal across the city and that is, in part, due to the inefficiency of our housing stock,” Webb said. “And that’s simply not fair.”

By providing a critical collection of data and analysis of multifamily buildings, Webb and Moore gave policymakers a new tool to identify where to focus assistance programs through the support of the Energy Foundation, which funded the study as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge grant. 

Webb said they are working on a follow-up research study that further examines the data they uncovered to understand the relationship among all of the variables and historical housing practices, such as redlining, that led to these inequities in energy burden.

“Understanding the history and understanding these trends is the next critical step toward being able to make better policy,” Webb said.

When Webb came to the University of Cincinnati in 2017, she made it a point to get involved with the sustainability and energy efficiency efforts underway in the city. She participated in the community outreach meetings that guided the development of the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, a strategic effort to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Webb and some of her students also conducted research in 2018 that helped identify potential downtown locations for Cincinnati’s 2030 District, a national model for urban sustainability in which building owners collectively commit to cutting their energy consumption, water consumption and transportation emissions in half by 2030. UC joined the Cincinnati 2030 District in late 2019 as part of the university’s broader goals toward sustainability and a reduced carbon footprint.

headshot of David Moore

David Moore. Photo/provided.

The crux of Webb’s research focuses on real-world building solutions with a bent toward civic-minded projects, which is something that drew David Moore to the work. Moore took Webb’s classes and began working on research projects with her before earning his bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from UC in 2019. Moore, who completed a cooperative education  (co-op) job in Japan as an undergraduate, spent another two months in Japan after graduation through a U.S. Department of State language program that focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. He was accepted into a longer 10-month program in Japan, but instead took Webb’s offer to work with her at UC as a master’s student — even taking GIS data and mapping courses through UC’s geography department to learn the skills needed for the multifamily building report. 

“I was able to see firsthand how research directly informs city policy and it was amazing to see that some programs are being developed in Cincinnati that are going to use the multifamily report to establish program criteria,” Moore said. “To know that work I did is going to have a positive impact on the community that I live in is really exciting.”  

Featured image at top: Cincinnati's skyline viewed from the east. Photo/Zach Vessels/Unsplash.