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Saving energy for those who need it the most

In Sarasota County, 42% of households are paying more than 30% of monthly income on housing costs (which is called “cost-burdened”). Among low-income families, there are over 53,000 households (73%) that are cost burdened locally. Energy is a surprisingly high component of those costs. A nationwide study in 2016 found that low-income households in the City of Tampa, the closest studied city in our region, spent 7.28% of their income on energy, more than double those with median income. In Sarasota County, a study of data from past energy program participants found that lower cost homes have a four times greater chance of having the highest energy bills (over $1.50 per square foot). Affordable housing, unfortunately, tends to have less affordable energy bills due to inefficient construction and appliances. This inequity in housing and utility costs is having negative impacts on family stability, economic development, and indoor environmental health.

United Way Suncoast Financial Sustainability Initiative graduate. Photo Credit: United Way Suncoast

Sarasota County UF/IFAS Extension and Sustainability has been working with local non-profit partners to help these families reduce their energy costs. Sarasota County Sustainability has been a part of each of the following programs by teaching energy and water efficiency workshops geared to renters and low income families. Each participating family also receives a Do-It-Yourself efficiency kit that helps them save money right away.

  • Thanks to funding from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, United Way Suncoast runs the Financial Sustainability Initiative (FSI). FSI works with local agencies and educational facilities to help parents who are trying to become self-sustaining (no longer rely on public assistance) work towards creating a better life for themselves and their families. Through workshops, one-on-one coaching, goal setting, budgeting, and matched savings accounts, FSI supports these families for a full year.
  • Salvation Army in Sarasota County provides a similar education program to their clients who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.  Through a series of workshops they help families develop financial and life skills to help them get back on their feet.
  • Habitat for Humanity South Sarasota County provides educational workshops to their clients as they prepare to move into their new homes. Habitat has a commitment to green building techniques, so the new homes these families move into will be far more efficient, but it is important for the clients to understand the role of individual behaviors and maintenance in ensuring they realize the savings that were designed into the homes.
  • Children First is the designated Head Start and Early Head Start program provider in Sarasota County, serving more than 700 low income children annually at 13 sites throughout the county with the goal of Kindergarten readiness for all. They host an Open House for the parents of their students at the beginning of each school year where Sarasota County Sustainability has shared cost saving efficiency opportunities.

    Sara Kane, Sustainability Outreach Coordinator, providing education at the Children First family open house. Photo credit: Children First

Over the last two years, Sarasota County Sustainability has educated 285 low income families through partnership with these and other organizations. Each family reached is estimated to save $167 each per year, totaling over $47,000 in annual savings for these residents. By integrating our education into existing programs, Sustainability is bringing the efficiency message directly to the people who need it most and helping them achieve savings that will last into future years.

Energy Upgrade Kit

There are many more opportunities to reach this segment of our county’s population with this important information. Salvation Army is interested in partnering to reach their clients receiving support through various utility bill payment assistance programs. Affordable housing providers are interested in working with their residents to achieve savings together. But, all of these programs require capacity for implementation, so Sarasota County Sustainability will be developing an energy volunteer program aimed to develop a group of trained volunteers who can help reach this population and increase the savings opportunities. If you are interested in learning more about this exciting new program, email SustainableSarasota@scgov.net and we will add you to our list to notify when the program launches.

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