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Residential renovation for the sake of people and the planet

Community-led deep renovations: cure for the energy crisis and a long-term solution towards just energy transition

This opinion editorial was co-authored by Veronika Kiss, Habitat for Humanity International.

The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the existing energy crisis and its impact on the whole society, especially on more vulnerable social groups, showing how fragile an energy-dependent continent can be.

Crisis measures set in the REPowerEU plan, including direct income support for vulnerable groups and increased targets for energy efficiency and renewables, aim to tackle the negative impacts of the energy crisis in the short- to medium-term.

However, if we are to meet the just energy transition, aligned with the Fit for 55 climate goals part of the EU Green Deal, we need to focus on structural changes. Developing and implementing structural measures, including an ambitious energy-saving regulation, sound energy efficiency measures and cautious renewable energy production are vital to combat energy poverty and mitigate our energy dependence in the long term.

Buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of the EU’s energy consumption and 36 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, if the building stock is renovated properly and fairly, it has a huge potential of reaching climate targets in a socially just manner. The current revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, or EPBD, provides an opportunity for this.

During the revision, Habitat for Humanity has been advocating for enhancing the role and opportunities of communities in delivering the needed Renovation Wave, through the development of adequate financial solutions, enhancement of technical assistance and social facilitation capacities of one-stop-shops (or Resource Centres), as well as the strengthening of the role of homeowner associations of owner-occupied multi-apartment buildings. Unfortunately and despite all efforts, the Council’s general approach is neither sufficiently ambitious nor socially fair. Now it is up to the European Parliament to ensure an ambitious and just approach to reduce energy demand and dependency while supporting vulnerable families in lowering their energy bills.

Improving the energy performance of the European built environment is vital to decreasing energy costs impacting low-income families, alleviating energy poverty, increasing the limited affordable housing stock across Europe and thus, decreasing their carbon emissions. Let us look at Central and Eastern Europe, or CEE, where energy poverty is one of the biggest housing challenges. In this region, many families own their homes, which are often found in multi-apartment buildings privatized from the former socialist models. Homeowners, however, often do not have the means for investing in the maintenance and energy upgrading of their commonly owned building, nor have supported social structures and traditions on how to cooperate together. The result is a society of poor homeowners, where hundreds of thousands of families live in substandard conditions among a deteriorating housing stock, which keeps worsening due to the current energy crisis.

We know that subsidising energy consumption alone will not reduce energy intensity nor solve the problem of energy poverty in the long-term. That is why Habitat for Humanity has been focusing on residential energy efficiency in the CEE region for over a decade now, developing and implementing pilot projects in different countries. These activities have demonstrated that by adopting a people-centred approach, the impact is visible at household and community levels, supporting a whole housing ecosystem change vital to reach just energy transition.

Habitat for Humanity has been coordinating two international projects to support ecosystems around homeowner associations of multi-apartment buildings. The Residential Energy Efficiency for Low-Income Households – REELIH project was funded by USAID and implemented in Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia between 2012 and 2022. The renovation of pilot buildings in the project countries resulted in increased energy efficiency and affordability of houses (for example in North Macedonia, the energy savings of apartments in the renovated buildings ranged from 30 to 50 per cent).

The ongoing Community Tailored Actions for Energy Poverty Mitigation – ComAct project, funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, targets energy-poor people in five pilot countries: Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, North Macedonia and Ukraine. Our innovative approach how to engage local communities, while sharing advice on financial support and technical knowledge by establishing local Resource Centers, has been recently recognised by the European Commission, as part of the European Sustainable Energy Week Awards. Within these projects, we have helped municipalities in several cities provide subsidies for homeowner associations to ease their renovation process. We also helped municipal and national governments develop better energy action plans and long-term renovation strategies. Furthermore, at the regional level, we established a knowledge-sharing platform, where we have been publishing relevant information about residential energy efficiency.

The results of our activities show that to scale up renovations of multi-apartment buildings, key actors and stakeholders, including homeowner associations, municipalities, national governments, financing institutions, construction market players, utility companies and energy experts, must be on board. This cooperation does not and will not happen automatically. There is a need for mediating organisations that could facilitate cooperation between the different actors. Furthermore, community facilitation and mobilisation of homeowner associations are needed in order to make homeowners aware of the benefits of energy efficiency and thus, to decide together on joint investments. As a global community, we need to put homeowners at the centre of our work, to ensure that the complex technical assistance and community involvement are met in a sustainable way.

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