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Local Governments Can Protect Renters While Cutting Emissions

November 17, 2022
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Across the country, local governments are aiming to remedy two concurrent crises: climate change and a lack of affordable housing, including rental housing options. An ACEEE toolkit released today provides guidance to communities looking to protect renters and preserve or create affordable housing while curbing needless greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy efficiency is a proven strategy for tackling climate change and lowering consumers’ utility bills, but cities need to enact policies that ensure renters benefit from energy efficiency and do not face higher rents as a result of upgrades. Renters generally do not have the authority to make the upgrades themselves, and a property owner who makes an upgrade may increase rent to recoup their investment, possibly resulting in displacement of the renter.

ACEEE collaborated with local government and community-based organization staff in communities participating in its Energy Equity for Renters initiative to conduct research, provide guidance, and share best and emerging practices on how they can address these challenges. The toolkit—available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese—also provides guidance on how to fill financing and funding gaps for energy efficiency retrofits in affordable housing; engage rental property owners, building staff, and renters; and institutionalize equity-driven planning and program implementation.

Innovative strategies and successful case studies

Local communities can use strategies highlighted in the toolkit to help achieve their climate, energy, and housing goals. For example, they can attach affordability covenants to energy efficiency incentives to prevent the recipient from increasing rent at the target property for several years. They can engage renters in co-designing and -creating energy efficiency projects to find solutions that prevent temporary and permanent displacement resulting from the upgrades. And they can conduct structural equity assessments to ensure policy and programs remain equitable during their design and implementation. These are just a few of the strategies featured in the toolkit.

The toolkit also presents case studies of innovative programs designed to help renters and/or promote energy efficiency. These include, among others, a flexible rental assistance program in Washington, DC; inclusive financing proposals for weatherization and air sealing in Minneapolis; a one-stop-shop energy efficiency program that helps reduce barriers to energy efficiency upgrades in Dane County, Wisconsin; and a participatory budgeting process in Rochester, New York, that led to the creation of affordable rental housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Cities and partners looking to incorporate the strategies

Energy Equity for Renters collaborators shared how they are using the toolkit in their housing and energy work:

Bay Area Regional Energy Network (BayREN) and the City of Berkeley:BayREN and Berkeley are referencing the research and case studies in the toolkit to develop more equitable programs and policies. We are particularly looking at the sections addressing tenant opportunity to purchase acts and affordability covenants.”

City of Duluth: Energy efficiency has not yet been included as part of Duluth’s affordable housing program requirements and knowing best practices and case studies from other communities will be a huge help. Our team will prioritize and share the solutions researched by experts at ACEEE as we explore how to integrate efficiency and housing affordability within our programs and funding pathways. A 2019 Maxfield Research, Inc. analysis found that Duluth could absorb roughly 3,500+ additional units by 2024. We’ve made great strides, with a net gain of 943 units from 2019 to year end 2021 (163 of which were affordable). During this era of significant investment in housing, the recommendations for integrating energy efficiency in housing projects and programs in the future will be key.”

Unite Oregon and the City of Portland: “The toolkit provides useful insights for the design and implementation of programs or projects focusing on meeting renters’ needs for housing stability and lower energy bills. The case studies and recommendations will support incorporation of applicable best practices and innovative actions, including connecting impacted households and landlords of low-cost housing to available resources and expertise from state and regional governments and service providers.”  

City of Tacoma: About 50% of Tacoma residents are renters, and potential displacement from home improvements such as energy efficiency and electrification is a top concern as we embark on our decarbonization journey. ACEEE’s toolkit provides a nationwide perspective and lessons learned from jurisdictions grappling with these same challenges. In April 2021, the Tacoma City Council adopted a resolution tasking the City with conducting an impact assessment for requiring non-fossil fuel-sourced heating, lighting, and power in new construction and in retrofits of existing buildings and creating a strategy for implementation. The team conducting this work will use the toolkit to help inform the development of Tacoma's Community Decarbonization Strategy.”

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