Honoring Black History Month and the Path Towards Energy Justice: Energy Efficiency and Economic Stability in Memphis

Guest Blog | February 17, 2016 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Justice, Energy Policy
Homeowner Arlicia Gilliams (left) and SACE Energy Organizer Sandra Upchurch (right) during Ms. Gilliams housewarming.

This blog is the third in our 2016 Black History Month series honoring advocates and opportunities to advance energy justice. To read other blogs in this series, click here.

In cities as old and historic as Memphis, TN, there are often many older, inefficient homes where energy seeps out through leaky windows, doors and poorly insulated attics. A city often remembered for its role in the Civil Rights Movement, Memphis is a majority-minority city with African-Americans comprising around 63% of the population. As of 2010, almost 27% of Memphians were living in poverty – and only a little more than half of the city (51%) owned their own homes.  The other half of Memphians live in multi-family housing, like apartment buildings, duplexes, and condominiums, where families have less control over the energy efficiency of their residences.

Arlicia Gilliams is one Memphian who used to live in an extremely inefficient apartment that lost energy through poorly sealed doors, windows and a poorly sealed attic. Although gainfully employed and working hard, Ms. Gilliams was struggling to meet unnecessarily high utility bills while also on the search to buy a house. Now, Ms. Gilliams is the proud owner of a new energy efficient home built by Habitat for Humanity.

Established in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller, Habitat for Humanity helps families gain access to affordable homes that also incorporate state of the art energy efficiency features. Since 1983, the Greater Memphis Habitat for Humanity has been helping Memphians find permanent homes and helping them become more economically self-sufficient. Ms. Gilliams was familiar with the Habitat for Humanity program because her parents were able to secure a home with the help of the organization when she was a child.

Ms. Gilliams new energy efficient home, built by Habitat for Humanity.

“You don’t always know what you get with apartments,” Ms. Gilliams said. “It could look nice on the outside and nice on the inside and have an affordable rent, but you don’t know the true cost until you get that first utility bill.” Ms. Gilliams’ electric bills were averaging over $200 per month, despite living in a modest one-bedroom apartment with her young daughter. Longing for more control over her finances, Ms. Gilliams began to explore the housing market, but found many homes unaffordable due to high-interest financing.

That’s where Habitat for Humanity came in. Ms. Gilliams began the application process, which determines need based on several factors including income and family size. Ms. Gilliams has a young daughter, which made her eligible for a 3-bedroom home. Ms. Gilliams found out in February 2015 that she would be getting her new home and by December 23, 2015, she was moving in.

Ms. Gilliams new home has double-pane storm windows that help keep in heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. “The front door is so well sealed on the bottom that I have to have a thin carpet or else I can’t shut my door,” Ms. Gilliams laughed. “But I don’t mind because that door helps keep my home warm in the winter!” The home is also well-insulated and has EnergyStar rated appliances, including a refrigerator, HVAC system, washer, dryer and dishwasher. So far, Ms. Gilliams has seen drastically lower utility bills, despite the fact that her new home is much larger than her old, inefficient apartment. “Even though we are in winter, my utility bills so far haven’t been high,” Ms. Gilliam reported. “And I was told the highest they may go is around $140 in the summer/winter months.”

An energy efficient stove stuffed with food welcomed guests at Ms. Gilliams housewarming.

Ms. Gilliams recently had a housewarming party, welcoming friends and family and sharing stories of how former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, came to Memphis to help build her home – along with Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. She now looks forward to customizing her home with the money she’ll save thanks to low utility bills. “Since I got this house with zero-financing thanks to Habitat for Humanity, it means I’ll be able to save money and continually improve my house for me and my daughter. I’d love to put solar panels on my home someday!”

In her former life as a high school chemistry teacher, SACE Energy Organizer Sandra Upchurch taught Ms. Gilliams and others the importance of science and energy conservation. Special thanks to Ms. Gilliams for allowing us to tell her story of how energy efficiency is helping her and her daughter save money for their futures.

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