Building a Green Chicago – Home, Interrupted

In 2023, Illinois’ governor signed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act to phase out fossil fuels by 2050 and renovate the state with green infrastructure. Chicago is one of the cities offering communities of color and those most impacted by pollution the chance to lead this energy revolution.

Reporter Wendy Wei speaks with Ghanaian American Senyo Ador about how he is bringing his insights from working on energy projects in Ghana to make Chicago a more energy-equitable city for communities of color.

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The road to clean energy for Chicago’s Black communities

by Wendy Wei

The greystone is to Chicago what the brownstone is to Brooklyn—an iconic residential building and a backbone to the city’s built environment and neighborhoods. Unlike the single-family brownstone, the Chicago greystone was always intended to house multiple families. The original building owners—often immigrants—were able to attain homeownership with the added financial income from renting out the other floor. In the 20th century, owning a greystone catapulted many working class Chicagoans into the growing middle class.

Following the Second World War, many of these greystone residents—mostly of white European origin—moved on to newer suburbs outside the city core. In the 1950s, Black families from the American South began to move to Chicago, often near industrial job sites adjacent to European immigrant communities. Black residents moved into formerly white immigrant enclaves such as North Lawndale, which still today has the highest concentration of greystones in the entire city. For the Black communities still living in these neighborhoods, the increasing costs of and carbon footprint of energy is taking its toll—especially in light of a changing climate.

A few examples of Chicago greystones. At the time of their construction between the 1890s and 1930s, these buildings were financed by Chicago’s burgeoning industry and an upwardly-mobile population who wanted homes that reflected their new prosperity. Photo credit: Wendy Wei.

Decarbonizing residential buildings like greystones is central to Chicago’s hopes to cut all citywide carbon emissions by 62 percent by 2040. Building decarbonization strives to use less energy to operate buildings—to heat, to cool, to have running water, to power appliances, and to cook. One important strategy is electrification, which means switching old systems that run on those fossil fuels to new electric systems using renewable energy.

“Nearly 70 percent of Chicago’s emissions are from buildings,” said Angela Tovar, Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “The City of Chicago recognizes that mitigating the climate crisis and building healthier communities in Chicago begins at home.”

Greystones and other homes built before 1942 represent 76 percent of Chicago’s residential housing today. They are commonly located in the South and West Side where majority Black residents still rely heavily on the traditional, often more expensive energy systems. The city’s 30,000 or so greystones have notoriously bad insulation, leaking out warm air in the winter and cool air during the summer—before occupants have a chance to even feel it.

The city-wide disparity of energy burdens—the share of gross monthly income spent on energy—is stark. Chicago has a particularly high disparity in energy burden; the top 20 percent had an energy burden five times higher than the bottom 20 percent. What’s more, the city’s Black households’ energy burden is 71 percent higher than that of white households, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. And this is despite using less energy on average.

The same study found that, out of all the city’s 67 zip codes,  the average resident in North Lawndale emits the least amount of greenhouse gases—likely due to living in smaller spaces and using energy more conservatively to save money.

This is where the dream of a Chicago powered by clean energy starts to falter. Black communities living in disinvested neighborhoods with low homeownership aren’t given the power nor have the income to control their energy sources. In efforts to lessen the energy burden of households, a specter emerges—decades of racial segregation that have and continue to prevent Black communities from affording clean energy solutions.

The roots of the energy inequity lie in the disparity in home ownership and economic opportunities, which stems back nearly a century in Chicago. For the wave of Black migrants from southern states who arrived in Chicago in the 1950s, finding housing in Chicago meant dealing with racial covenants, redlining, and discriminatory loans. Many ended up in neighborhoods with deplorable slum conditions far away from public transportation, and racial violence from existing white populations so intense that it prompted Martin Luther King, Jr. to state in 1966, “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.”

These legacies are still potently felt in areas of Chicago, like in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale. In 2023, only 24.3 percent of the homes in North Lawndale were owner-occupied—that’s nearly half the rate of the city average. As renters, residents have less control over their utility systems.

That’s why organizations like Elevate and Sesenergi are stepping in to make sure to include Black communities in Chicago’s clean energy economy. Elevate, a non-profit organization focused on energy equity, was the city’s co-lead in working on decarbonizing buildings.

“If we’re all breathing the same air, drinking the same water and using the same energy, you can’t fix those problems in affluent communities and then leave everybody else to figure it out,” said Delmar Gillus, chief operating officer at Elevate.

Local community members participate in Sesenergi’s workforce training programs. Photo courtesy of Sesenergi Eco Solutions Enterprise.

Elevate has partnered up with Sesenergi, a solar energy company, to provide training programs for students at the North Lawndale Employment Center. Senyo Ador, founder of Sesenergi and a child of Ghanaian immigrants, sees these programs for clean energy job training as explicitly connected to economic prosperity. Instead of seeing Black communities as only consumers, he is investing in programs that create Black contractors, business owners, and leaders in the clean energy sector.

“If we have higher earners in the community, better educated folks in the community, then our hope is that…it’s just a better living experience for all of us,” Ador said.

For many Black and Brown Chicagoans, installing renewable sources is easier said than done. Many people simply can’t afford the expensive upfront costs of switching. But the transition over from gas to electric will save people more money over time.

Elevate estimates that the switch to renewable systems can bring up to 77 percent energy savings and cuts bills up to $1,300 annually per household. In 2023, Chicago committed $15 million to aid in the transition and decarbonize 200 to 350 low-income households (primarily in the South and West side) by 2025 through grants for electric stoves, heat pumps and energy-efficiency measures.

Ador and Gillus are working to ensure that the money isn’t just a one-time grant, but will be put to use to create a clean energy economy that includes the Black community in its promises of prosperity. They hope that by fostering the growth of Black capital and homeownership, Black communities will be included in the industrial revolution of the present day—the green transition.

“We may not be able to answer all those questions ourselves,” said Ador. “But if we engage the community through workforce development programs, through projects that are mindful, when it comes to the environment, we may get close to addressing the energy equation in a way that can be beneficial to absolutely everybody.”


Hosted by Iggy Monda

Story Produced by Wendy Wei

Edited by John Rudolph, Quincy Surasmith, and Iggy Monda

Fact Checking by Julie Schwietert Collazo

Engineering by Jocelyn Gonzales

Theme music by Fareed Sajan

Additional music:
Life in Color, by Philip Ayers
Dice, by Fareed Sajan

“Home, Interrupted” show logo by Daniel Robles

Feet in 2 Worlds is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Fernandez Pave the Way Foundation, an anonymous donor, and contributors to our annual NewsMatch campaign.

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AboutWendy Wei
Wendy Wei is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and the immigration editor at South Side Weekly. Her work explores how migrants are pitted against other marginalized groups to compete over scarce resources—whether that be in Darfur or the US—and how solidarity can be built. Wendy’s work has been supported by the International Center for Investigative Journalism and International Women Media Foundation. She has held fellowships with the Chicago Reader and Juneteenth Productions. In 2023, her print and audio reporting on interracial solidarity were finalists for the 2023 Peter Lisagor Awards and Chicago Journalism Associations' Awards.