The Landlord/Tenant Dilemma and Housing Policy in Tompkins County

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Tompkins Weekly 07/01/2013

By Kevin Posman

As an energy efficiency educator I’m often answering an array of questions like: What type of light bulb should I get? What is the best kind of insulation? Most times there is a clear answer, but some questions have no direct answer. One question I get frequently is, “Why don’t we have more energy efficiency programs for renters?” I can’t say exactly why, but I can sketch out our situation here in Tompkins County, what is being done and what other municipalities are doing to address that issue.

According to American Community Survey data 42% of the housing units in Tompkins County are renter occupied. In the City of Ithaca, which is the most densely populated area in the County, that number increases to 73%. This composition adds to the vibrancy and diversity of our community, but poses unique housing challenges for reducing our green house gas emissions.  If we are to meet our county goals the most beneficial and cost effective way is to improve the energy efficiency standards of our buildings. Smart, effective residential housing policy would foster the economic and regional development while simultaneously improving the quality of live in Tompkins County, save citizens money, reduce our emissions and make us more energy secure.

The barriers for improving energy efficiency are well known; most notable are the high upfront cost and potentially long payback period of efficiency upgrades.  To address these issues various incentives and programs have been developed to help reduce initial upgrade costs and educate people on the many benefits of energy efficiency. NYSERDA offers incentives for homeowners, renters and landlords. Most incentives are tailored to homeowners because of the simplicity of property owning rights. Although some programs, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program and Empower, do exist for renters, these programs only serve a subset of the population, are contingent on landlord participation, and can require extensive paperwork and long waiting periods. We are continually working to raise awareness about programs and help individual through the process because they can make significant improvements, but more could be done to serve a larger portion of the population.

Compounding the cost barrier is a unique problem for renter-occupied buildings called the split incentive or landlord/tenant dilemma. As an example, as a landlord whose tenants pay their own utilities, what is the incentive to invest in energy efficiency, when they will not see the financial savings benefits? Conversely, if the landlord pays the utilities, what is the incentive for the tenant to practice energy conservation? Why not crank the thermostat to 80° in January and open the windows? This is the dilemma. How do we as a community create robust policies for energy efficiency given our county’s unique housing composition?

At CCE we continue to provide information and assistance with incentives and develop programs to help people cut their energy use. Individual behavior change is empowering and small projects can make modest gains but this strategy alone it cannot meet our goals fully. It must go beyond the individual, which is too often the sole focus of education programs. This focus can perpetuate the harmful mantra that an individual is a bad person for not turning off the lights, not recycling, or not driving a hybrid, etc. This leaves us feeling isolated, unmotivated and guilty. Is this a recipe for comprehensive and inclusive action? No, we must instead envision ourselves on a path to becoming more sustainable and acknowledge that everyone is facing unique challenges in their own lives. More importantly this focus ignores the more serious issue of the institutional responsibility of our local government, higher education institutions and businesses to lead larger initiatives.  It’s up to us to put forth and shape this collective action.

Fortunately, other municipalities have instituted a variety of policies to address the landlord/tenant dilemma. Municipal rental energy efficiency ordinances outline minimum energy efficiency requirements for buildings. For example, the SmartRegs in Bolder Colorado, features a 9 yr. phase in of incentives and penalties to help property owners upgrade their buildings. In addition to efficiency ordinances, tax incentives, green leases, and special local financing programs targeted for rental energy efficiency These policies could supplement larger state and federal programs to address the specific challenges for property owners. For a truly market based solution building labeling or energy efficiency disclosure requirements would help increase communication between landlords and tenants. Currently, there is no convenient way for tenants to compare utility data among properties and making utility usage a prominent feature of leases and mortgages would empower consumer choice to drive demand. Any of these policies would be a positive contribution to the ongoing efforts in Tompkins County.

Kevin Posman is the Energy Corps Program Manager at Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at or (607)-272-2292

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