Energy poverty: cold in the house and fleece blankets for visitors

Energy poverty: cold in the house and fleece blankets for visitors

It is special that Mirjam van der Hak still gets visitors, she says with a laugh. It is often cold at her house. “In winter I always offer visitors a fleece blanket, and I myself am wearing my thick house suit,” says the resident of The Hague, who lives with her 21-year-old son.

The corner house from the 1930s has not been renovated and there is a lot of draft, says Van der Hak. She never leaves the heating on for long, she can’t afford that with an income of around 1,500 euros a month. It has been that way for eleven years – since she rented the house. With energy prices rising, she’s worried about energy bills. “If I really have to, I will live a more primitive life, light a fire in the garden or something.”

The natural gas price is unprecedentedly high, while many Dutch homes are not yet well insulated. The costs can be high, which affects low-income households.

Energy bills could be up to hundreds of euros per year higher this year. During the General Political Reflections on Thursday, it was agreed that the tax on energy will be reduced by 375 million euros. That equates to an average of 40 euros per household.

Earlier that Thursday, research institute TNO published new figures: around 550,000 households in the Netherlands suffer from energy poverty. They have a low income of which they spend a large part on energy – between 13 and 20 percent.

Or they have a low income and live in a poorly insulated house, such as Van der Hak. That too is energy poverty, the researchers say.

What is it like to live in an energy-poor situation, now that energy prices are rising, and how can the phenomenon be explained?

The gas price – which partly also determines the price for electricity – is driven up by a number of reasons, says professor of energy economics Machiel Mulder, affiliated with the University of Groningen. Partly because less gas is coming from Groningen and deliveries from Russia have been delayed, the gas price has increased fivefold in one year.

High burden on households

In addition, there are ‘strong’ political choices behind energy costs, says Professor Mulder. “For households, a large part of the bill consists of taxes. This is much less true for industry. The idea behind this is that large companies will leave the Netherlands if the bill were to fall to them. There is an exemption for households that consume little, but income is not taken into account.”

Amsterdam resident Tanja from Bos en Lommer rents a new-build home from a corporation and is concerned about rising energy prices. A few years ago, the person entitled to social assistance received an additional assessment of 400 euros. “That was very frightening. Since then I hardly dare to turn on the heating. Now I get money back every year. It would be difficult for me to absorb such a high additional tax.” NRC viewed its annual accounts.

Good insulation is not always a realistic option for energy-poor households, write the TNO researchers. Sometimes they as owners cannot afford the costs of sustainability themselves, sometimes the landlord does not cooperate. In three quarters of the cases, the landlord is a housing association, according to the TNO study. “Even if there are no payment problems, they relatively often suffer from a lack of living comfort (draught, moisture, heat) and associated health problems.”

Also read this piece: Is Russia manipulating the gas price? No, says the Kremlin. Yes, experts think

Energy label D

Frans van der Heijden from The Hague also tries to use as little energy as possible. “When I once received a high tax, my heart almost jumped into my brain,” says the tenant of a corner house from the 1950s. The house has energy label D. In the photos he sent to him via WhatsApp NRC sends to see cracks, moisture and cracks. “It’s not hot here. My grandchildren are no longer coming.”

Mirjam van der Hak from The Hague shows a pile of fleece blankets. It is difficult to see from her rented house that it is poorly insulated. It looks neat after a few cracks. It is hard to imagine, in September, that it really gets that cold in the winter at Van der Hak. “The cold enters the room through the floor. The outer walls are always cold.” When you knock, some outer walls sound hollow, others stony. This does not indicate that the material insulates well.

She thinks the cold is less bad for herself than for her son Max, says Van der Hak. He has a muscle disease, which means that he has a poorly functioning immune system and limited stamina. The cold aggravates his symptoms.

Van der Hak knew at the time that she would be renting a poorly insulated house, „But I was so happy that I could get a house. It had to be a ground floor apartment because of my son’s muscle disease. One bedroom was actually not enough for the three of us, with son and daughter. I didn’t care, I sleep in the living room. My daughter, when she still lived at home, slept in a shed in the garden.”

The house was never renovated, because the previous residents did not want to participate when the neighborhood was renovated. The house still has (the lowest) energy label G. The houses of the neighbors now have energy label D.

Role of housing associations

The housing corporation from which she rents – she prefers not to mention the name because they ‘have to continue working together’ – should have given her better information at the time about the risk of a high energy bill, she thinks. She shows a message she sent to her landlord a year ago: “My house is very cold and not insulated, I would like that for my son. The heat goes away immediately,” it says. Van der Hak: “I never got a response to that.”

Housing associations no longer receive disturbing reports from residents about the quality of their homes, now that gas prices have risen, say Ymere, Vestia and Nijestee. “We sometimes receive questions from residents who want to know when their homes are due to be made more sustainable,” Vestia says in writing in response to questions from NRC.

Making the entire housing stock more sustainable is a major task, say the housing associations. For example, a spokesperson for Ymere (73,000 social rental homes in the Amsterdam area) says: “Most of the homes in our stock are old, many were built in the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve made a lot of steps, but we can’t do everything at once. Sometimes the only option is to demolish and rebuild. 52 percent of the homes now have energy label B.”

Jan-Jaap Vogel, real estate director of housing corporation Nijestee (Groningen) agrees that some groups have to wait. “We do show the energy label of a home clearly on the site, so new residents know what they get.”

Energy poverty: cold in the house and fleece blankets for visitors

Mirjam van der Hak’s housing corporation in The Hague has it the lowest energy label G. She has a stack of fleece blankets ready for when visitors arrive. “The cold enters the room through the floor. The outer walls are always cold too,” she says. There were no answers to questions to the housing association about the cold in the house.

Publishing the energy label when selling or renting has been mandatory since 2008. Vogel: “But residents often find it more important to be able to move into a home at all, not necessarily the energy label.”

Rent increase with double glazing

The corporations Ymere, Nijestee and Vestia say that renovating individual homes or making them more sustainable is complicated. Ymere: “Renovating per district is many times more efficient.” Tenants can request solar panels or double glazing from the corporations, which can often be placed against a rent increase. Whether that works depends on the situation. Do the neighbors have the same need? And is it a flat or terraced house? Vogel: “We would rather go on the roof for six solar panels at once, than for each panel again.”

The corporations do offer free energy coaches. With draft strips and radiator foil you can go a long way if you want to consume less, says Nijestee director Vogel. But in the long run, “renovation of poorly insulated homes is necessary.”

Rising energy prices are not bad for everyone. Some actually benefit from it. Such as Jan-Willem Zwang from Woudenberg. “I now produce more energy than I use, thanks to my solar panels. I am smart with my consumption, I have an electric car and a heat pump. I sell the surpluses – they go back into the net. So I benefit from the rising prices, but I don’t mind for people who can’t afford it.”

A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of September 29, 2021

Energy poverty: cold in the house and fleece blankets for visitors
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