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Renters are largely left out of the eco-home movement, but solutions exist

When it comes to making homes more environmentally friendly, there’s a growing catalog of resources and financial incentives to help property owners install solar panels, tear out lawns or add charging stations for electric vehicles.

Nearly half of the homes in California now are rentals, though. And experts say complex legal, practical and political issues are, so far, leaving most renters out of the eco-home movement. In a state with the nation’s most ambitious clean energy and climate goals, this is a problem.

“Very little focus or funding is directed toward renters,” said Michael Méndez, an urban planning professor at UC Irvine who focuses on environmental issues.

“But 40% of the country’s total energy consumption comes from buildings, such as rental units. So it’s important that we don’t lose that key sector in terms of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

Renters also are more likely to be low income, Black and Latino, and to be living in older homes that aren’t as well insulated or maintained. That makes them less safe, particularly as climate change makes extreme weather events more common. A new online tool from UCLA, for example, shows that hospitalizations spike during heat waves far more in disadvantaged communities, where residents don’t have the same access to air conditioning, energy efficient windows and trees or other forms of shade. And since many of these upgrades also help reduce utility bills, Méndez and others say excluding renters from such subsidized programs is clearly an environmental justice issue.

This gap is starting to get more attention from advocates and lawmakers.

The California budget, for example, calls for spending $922 million over the next two fiscal years to help low- and moderate-income households get energy efficient and electric appliances. And the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate and is expected to pass the House as soon as Friday, sets aside $15 billion through 2024 specifically to make grants for clean energy projects in disadvantaged communities.

There also are a number of physical changes renters can make to their homes without running afoul of lease agreements, experts say, with new technology promising more potential options in the near future.

Inequitable incentives

To date, “very wealth homeowners” have received the vast majority of the public money used for things like removing turf, upgrading appliances and installing solar panels, said Gregory Pierce, an urban planning professor at UCLA who studies the inequities in environmental programs.

Almost 90% of California’s 1.3 million rooftop solar installations have been on single-family, owner-occupied homes, for example, according to data from the Huntington Park-based California Environmental Justice Alliance.

“I think that incentives are a way to reward the rich for doing the right thing and don’t do a whole lot for the poor,” said Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.

In one way, Pierce said some of these decisions make sense. If the goal is, say, to reduce water consumption as much as possible, it’s logical to focus public dollars on incentives for people with huge yards rather than for renters living in apartments.

But what about the roughly 42% of renters, nationwide, who lease single-family homes? They also might have large lawns and roofs perfectly positioned to capture energy from the sun, but they rarely have authority to make physical changes to the property, such as installing solar panels. And if they do, incentives for those changes are only available to property owners unless renters negotiate a deal with landlords — something Pierce noted many renters are loathe to even broach given the currently tight rental market.

On the other end of the spectrum, for many low-income renters, long-term environmental projects like solar panels take a back seat to other serious issues, such as rodent infestations, said Chelsea Kirk, who focuses on equity issues connected to housing for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a nonprofit based in South L.A.

Other experts see a similar dynamic.

“Basically, I think it’s kind of out of the tenants’ hands how environmentally friendly a property is,” said April Roberts, an attorney who handles landlord and tenant cases for a Hemet-based law firm.

That presents a tricky dilemma when it comes to utility bills.

Data shows that conservation efforts work best when the same person who consumes electricity or water is also responsible for paying those bills. Renters who don’t see a water bill, for example, also are unlikely to see notices about mandatory restrictions during droughts. And they certainly won’t be able to take advantage of special rates utilities offer to incentivize conservation. That means even if renters do cut back on water use, they’re unlikely to receive any savings, since that’s typically a fixed cost included in monthly rent — once again cutting the tenant out of incentive programs.

Then again, is it fair for a tenant to pay all utilities if they can’t make decisions about or access subsidies for, say, removing turf or adding solar panels?

And if the tenant is paying for utilities, the landlord no longer has an incentive to add green features to renter-occupied homes. Most financial programs for environmental upgrades require property owners to pay for these improvements up front, then apply for partial rebates or tax credits to recover some portion of the cost. Even after federal incentives, installing solar panels cost U.S. homeowners an average of $12,000 and apartment buildings an average of nearly $500,000. So it’s hard to imagine why landlords would volunteer to spend thousands to help tenants shave money off their monthly electric bills.

If landlords do add eco-friendly features, they often then jack up the rent. Such moves are specifically allowed even for rent controlled units under city law in places like Los Angeles, Kirk said. And while state law mandates that new homes include things like energy efficient appliances, those newer rentals are typically much more expensive. So these policies can perpetuate the cycle of pricing low- and even some middle-income renters out of energy-efficient homes.

Seeking solutions

Some programs are helping California make strides when it comes to closing the green energy gap for renters.

The state’s Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing, or SOMAH program, which took effect in 2019, dedicated $1 billion to help install rooftop solar on as many as 3,500 apartment complexes by 2031. So far, 28 complexes have received a combined $16.4 million in SOMAH money toward rooftop solar, with another 288 projects in the works. The systems are shaving an average of $45 to $61 a month off renters’ utility bills.

Landlords who participate in the program get 48% of their costs covered plus technical assistance in arranging for rooftop solar systems. In exchange, they have to sign an affidavit promising not to raise rent to cover their share of costs to install the solar panels, said Tyler Valdes, who oversees SOMAH for the California Environmental Justice Alliance. But property owners do get to save money on electric bills for common areas, and they can use the program to help attract new tenants and boost property values.

Valdes said he sees potential for replicating the SOMAH model to tackle other avenues for making rental properties more climate resilient.

With buckets of new state and federal funding potentially available in coming months for more such projects, experts have a list of recommendations for how the money should — and should not — be spent.

Before that money gets doled out to any property owners, advocates for renters and the environment say they want to make sure landlords can’t take advantage of tenants. Kirk noted that some cities have included stipulations in environmental programs that prevent landlords from raising rents beyond cost of living increases over a certain period of time, similar to the rules in West Hollywood that prevent landlords from passing along the costs of mandated seismic retrogrades.

Though pricey environmental projects, such as solar panels, get all the attention, Pincetl said she’d like to see more focus on moves such as installing good window shades, adding insulation and ceiling fans, and coating roofs in light colors, which can lower the temperature inside rental units by six degrees. And while charging stations for electric cars and trucks aren’t yet practical for some communities, Pincetl said infrastructure for electric bicycles might be more accessible.

She’d also like to see at least some financial incentives shift away from landlords. That might mean using funds to help utilities install energy efficient appliances in apartment buildings and lease them to tenants at super low rates, such as $3 a month.

Funds also could go directly to renters to help pay for some eco-friendly changes they can typically make without violating rental agreements or losing security deposits. That might include:

  • Weather stripping for windows and doors
  • Thermal curtains that help keep heat out in summer and in during winter
  • Potted trees that can be placed in strategic spots to block the sun during the hottest parts of the day
  • LED light bulbs that save energy over incandescent bulbs
  • Community and portable solar projects, where renters can help pay to install panels elsewhere then get discounted energy costs or add temporary panels to apartment balconies
  • Low-flow showerheads that can be swapped back out
  • Energy efficient appliances that come with rebates, for renters who must supply their own

Right now, Pincetl said rebates for changes such as appliances aren’t high enough to make that option feasible for many renters. So she said that’s a prime example of where new funds might be best directed.

In the long term, Kirk said phasing in mandates for all rental units to be made energy efficient and converted to clean energy — with subsidies for qualifying property owners — is likely the only way for renters to truly connect with the eco-home movement. And she hopes stronger protections for all tenants will be a byproduct of these discussions, so renters aren’t displaced along the way to a greener future.

“We need to stop thinking about climate policy and tenant policy as two separate issues.”

Source: Orange County Register

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