A new survey finds that nearly one-third of responding residents in the Washington Heights community of New York City report problems with lack of heat in the winter and/or difficulty with paying their electric bills.

The findings, published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, show that these individuals are more likely to have breathing problems, mental health issues and poor sleep.

Researchers at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health analyzed data collected as part of the Washington Heights Community Survey conducted at the request of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. The telephone-based survey of 2,494 households in English and Spanish in 2015 focused on socio-demographic characteristics, health care access, health risk behaviors, and current health status and medical conditions.

More than a quarter of respondents lived in energy insecure households with nearly 14 percent of their households meeting criteria for severe energy insecurity and nearly 13 percent meeting the criteria for moderate energy insecurity. Energy insecure households were more likely to have children under 18 years of age in the home and a lower household income, compared to energy secure households.

Black and Latino households had more than double the risk of being threatened with energy shut-off for not paying bills after controlling for income compared to white households. Long-term “pre-gentrification” neighborhood residents were more likely to be energy insecure than newer residents.

Gentrification occurs when more affluent residents move into and renovate deteriorated urban neighborhoods. This is a common and controversial topic in politics and in urban planning.

Severely energy insecure households had twice the odds of lifetime asthma, and nearly five times the odds of pneumonia in the past year, compared to energy secure households. Similarly, severely energy insecure households had twice the risk of depression and 60 percent greater chance of having poor-quality sleep.

In addition, one in four higher-income respondents also reported experiencing energy insecurity. Periodic building-wide heat shut-offs are not uncommon for middle-class New Yorkers, particularly those living in older buildings, the researchers said. In this context, solutions to energy insecurity should protect against the unintended consequences of energy efficiency upgrades that act to heighten housing disparities and fuel “green gentrification.”

“Community-based energy programs that help low- and middle-income make their homes more energy efficient are badly needed, across New York City and nationwide,” said Diana Hernández, Ph.D., lead author and associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia Public Health.

“Because households with children are particularly at risk for energy insecurity, energy efficiency and energy assistance programs should be supplemented by referrals to food-related aid such as free or reduced meals at schools to reduce the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma.”

Source: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health