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Former Grizzlies player Zach Randolph’s philanthropy helped but can’t heal poverty in Memphis

The city suffers from a perfect storm of energy inefficiencies and racial disparities

Take the departure of a beloved NBA player-philanthropist. Add in a software glitch that slashed utility bills by a factor of 100. Divide by a rumor spread on social media, then multiply by the city’s high poverty rate.

Carry the one and you get a hot (literally) mess that reveals the burden of energy inefficiency on African-Americans and the poor – and how racial disparities in homeownership rates only make it worse. That’s exactly what happened last month in Memphis, Tennessee, which has the highest energy burden in the nation.

Here’s what created the perfect storm and the unsettling images of black people standing in long lines — images that drew comparisons to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

Customers can pay their utility bills at dozens of third-party kiosks across the city. But a software glitch shifted the decimal point on customers’ bills by two places. Pay just $5 on a $500 bill and you’d get a receipt showing a zero balance.

This is where Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph comes in. The glitch surfaced just days after the news Randolph was leaving for the Sacramento Kings. During his eight years on the team, he’s given tens of thousands of dollars to pay the utility bills of needy Memphians.

And thus, the rumor was born: Randolph had made a $1 million parting gift and all you needed to do was make a payment at a kiosk.

So at kiosks in gas stations and convenience stores across the city, tens of thousands of people waited for hours in lines, hoping that a generous baller had done what public policy has not: Reduce their energy expenses.

On a typical Saturday, about 800 customers pay their bills at these kiosks, utility officials said. On this Saturday, 28,800 payments were made.

“Seeing those people waiting in line, that would be a visual indication of how high these energy burdens are,” said Ariel Drehobl, a local policy research analyst for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The council defines energy burden as the percentage of a household’s gross income spent on energy bills. Of 48 large cities surveyed, the energy burden is highest in Memphis, according to the council’s 2016 report, Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Improve Low Income and Underserved Communities.

The median household in Memphis spends just over 6 percent of its income on energy expenses. The poorest households in Memphis spend more than 25 percent.

For African-American households, Memphis also topped the list of cities where the energy burden is the highest, followed by Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Kansas City, Kansas; and Birmingham, Alabama.

For renters, Memphis was also No. 1, followed by Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta; New Orleans; and Providence, Rhode Island. (Cities with low energy burdens: San Francisco; San Jose, California; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and San Diego.)

The head of Memphis’ publicly owned utility doesn’t disagree with Drehobl’s assessment, although he’s quick to point out that the utility rates are lower in Memphis than in most cities.

The long lines are “just a signal that there’s a lot of poverty and it’s a signal that we have a lot of homes in Memphis that are not very energy-efficient,” said Memphis Light, Gas and Water CEO Jerry Collins. “Some of those homes that are not energy-efficient are rental units.”

First, the poverty: Memphis comes second to Tucson, Arizona, as the nation’s poorest large metro in the nation. Just over 26 percent of the city’s residents and 30 percent of black residents live below the poverty line.

Next, the rental units: Memphis, which is 63 percent black, has a higher than average share of renters, which should come as no surprise in a town where wages are lower than most areas of the country, as touted by the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

The median household income for a black family in Memphis metro area is $34,562, more than $30,000 less than the income for white families.

For renters, the median income falls to $27,200. More than half of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing expenses, which include utilities.

“For renters, of which the majority are low-income, landlords who do not pay for utilities may not be motivated to invest in efficiency upgrades, and renters may not want to invest, unsure if their tenure will be sufficient to recoup the investment,” Drehobl wrote.

Living in a home that’s energy-inefficient not only leads to higher utility bills, it makes its occupants sicker. Poorly insulated houses increase the risk of arthritis and respiratory problems. Leaky roofs often lead to mold, which can cause asthma. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be deadly.

“Ultimately, the drivers and effects of high energy burden create a negative feedback loop that can become a trap that is hard to escape,” Drehobl and her co-author wrote. That trap includes high-interest, predatory payday loans. The most common reason that people turn to these loans, according to a 2012 study? High utility bills.

Still, on social media, the shaming was intense. The general sentiment was this: If only folks would stand in line for Jesus/to vote/to attend their children’s PTA meeting like they stood in line to get something for nothing, the world would be a better place.

But that dismisses the factors that are beyond a renter’s control, such as curbing discriminatory mortgage lenders or better regulation of the payday loan industry.

Respectability politics won’t change the city’s business-friendly environment that translates into low wages for workers or fix unemployment rates for blacks that are twice the rates for whites.

“At the individual level, there are things people can do to save energy,” Drehobl said. “But a lot of the bigger fixes do cost money.”

Renters can install faucet aerators and upgrade to energy-efficient light bulbs. Every degree increase on the thermostat will lower the utility bill. But if you’re on a fixed income, forced to make hard choices between medicine and food, a low flow showerhead won’t make your shopping list.

These problems and the poverty aren’t unique to Memphis, which ranked 48 of 51 cities on the council’s City Energy Efficiency Scorecard. (Boston was No. 1; Birmingham was No. 51.) But the Randolph rumor cast a spotlight on how policies and practices make it more difficult than it needs to be for working-class people to keep the lights on.

Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launched MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud. On Twitter: @wendi_c_thomas