Spring’s finally arrived, and I’m looking forward to giving the heat pump a rest. As a renter, I know the feeling of helplessness you get when the home you don’t own is wasting your money – particularly during a winter as bad as the one we’ve just had. From another angle, I also know the organizations that typically promote and fund energy-efficient improvements don’t really know what to do with the large population of renters in the U.S. Often young and/or low-income, we’re not typically able to make high-impact improvements, and energy efficiency isn’t a top priority. So, what can be done to better engage us in energy efficiency?
About 35% of American households rent, and that number is projected to increase over the next decade. Renters are a diverse group, but Millennials, in particular, are greatly adding to the renter population: More than a million 25–34 year-old heads of households became renters between 2006 and 2011.
In a nutshell, the biggest problem with energy efficiency in residential rentals is the “split incentive”: If the tenant pays her utility bill directly, she wants it to be lower. She wants the landlord to pay for big improvements, but the landlord will see no ROI. On the other hand, if the landlord pays utilities, he wants them to be lower. He wants the tenant to make more energy-efficient choices, but the tenant, who never sees the bill, sees only discomfort and inconvenience.
There are many people concerned with this conundrum. Numerous studies have been performed and recommendations made – but, as the authors of the Minnesota 2020 study realized, each recommendation seems to have obstacles.
However, there have been some successes. Over the past year, Shelton Group has been a part of the Tennessee Energy Education Initiative, helping to organize events specifically targeting multifamily housing owners/managers to educate them on the benefits of energy efficiency upgrades. Some utilities, like Pacific Gas and Electric, offer energy efficiency programs and incentives specifically for multifamily housing properties. Rocky Mountain Power supplies tips and incentives for landlords through its WattSmart for Landlords program.
But renters themselves still need to be engaged, including those who live in single-family homes. One author of the Minnesota 2020 report suggested that “persuading renters to be more vocal about the issue and demand changes may be the ultimate key.” Here are some thoughts on stirring up engagement from a renter who has felt overwhelmed by the number of unengaging online lists labeled “Energy Efficiency Tips for Renters.”
A Renter’s Tips for Energy Efficiency Programs
- Encourage conversation between tenant and landlord about energy improvements.
- Communicate the business benefits of energy efficiency to property managers and individual landlords, and supply them with information they can distribute to their renters – those lists of no- or low-cost actions, seasonal magnets that will stay in view, or something more exciting (and all with your branding). Whatever it is, it has to connect with the renter.
- Make those lists of actions feel as empowering as they actually are. And don’t stop there. I appreciate the renter’s guide from Madison Gas and Electric, which recommends questions that renters can ask to gauge a property’s energy efficiency before renting it, and in the action list, prompts renters to mention certain things to their landlords. What about providing an action plan for talking to your landlord about improvements you think your home needs?
- Make resources for tenants and landlords a more evident and valuable element of your web presence. (Or add them if you don’t have any at all.)
- Give presentations on energy efficiency to multifamily property residents or neighborhood associations who have a high number of renters. Encourage the property managers or the associations to advertise the event.
- Many renters live with roommates or family members. Find a way to add energy efficiency into their conversations. School program sponsorships targeting lower-income renter neighborhoods can be very effective.
- Schedule your communications seasonally (in college towns, for example, many renters move in at the end of the summer). And this fall, remind renters about the coming winter and the high heating bills they likely paid this last winter.
Finally, don’t give up. It is possible to engage renters and landlords in energy efficiency with the right programs and messaging.