What do kale, resume-polishing, and power tools have in common with the behavior of our nation’s utilities? Well, have you ever put something off because you weren’t sure how to start or even whether it would be worth the effort? (I have.) Perhaps you’ve delayed changing your eating habits, looking for a better job, or embarking on an ambitious home improvement project? Faced with what seem like daunting projects, we often ask ourselves: Will I really be happier and healthier in the end?
The nation’s utilities feel your pain. And, by extension, so do low-income renters across the country. That’s because utilities have been putting off implementing cost-effective energy efficiency programs for low-income renters. Energy expenses in rented multifamily apartments typically run 37% higher per square foot than in owner-occupied units.1 But, until recently, multifamily housing has been considered a “hard-to-reach” sector and–like you and me–utilities just weren’t sure how to start or even whether it would be worth the effort.
Now that’s changing thanks to an emerging set of best practices and positive results from early-adopter utilities. Energy Efficiency for All, an initiative led by the National Housing Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Energy Foundation, has just released two reports that provide the evidence and guidance utilities, regulators, and buildings owners need to improve the energy efficiency of multifamily affordable housing.
The Program Design Guide: Energy Efficiency Programs in Multifamily Affordable Housing report addresses how to start by outlining best practice policies, program design elements, and partnerships.
The Potential for Energy Savings study answers the question of whether it would be worth the effort (Yes!) by outlining the enormous untapped opportunities for cost-effective energy savings in multifamily affordable housing in eight states, as well as accompanying benefits such as improved resident health and comfort.
The Potential for Energy Savings study found that the net benefit of cost-effective, achievable energy efficiency investments in multifamily affordable housing in just eight states would be up to $21 billion through 2034, yielding an impressive return on investment to society of $2.90 to $3.50 for each dollar invested.
The path to such achievements is via many of the Program Design Guide’s emerging best practices, such as developing programs specifically targeted to multifamily affordable housing, rather than a fragmented approach that addresses different fuels and meters (owner-paid vs. resident-paid) in separate programs. For example, the one-stop shop model simplifies owners’ participation in energy efficiency programs (e.g. Elevate Energy’s Energy Savers program in Chicago), while partnerships between utilities and key actors such as Housing Finance Agencies can create steady pipelines of buildings that are refinancing and can incorporate energy improvements into planned rehabilitation work (e.g. Minnesota Housing asks tax credit applicants to seek utility incentives).
Energy efficiency improvements can have far-reaching benefits for utilities and for the residents and owners of multifamily affordable housing. Utilities reduce expenses related to arrearages, collections calls, and bad debt. In addition to lower bills, residents can experience benefits such as improved health, for example from reduced asthma, which is a leading cause of missed days of school and work. Owners can benefit from lower bills, as well as reduced maintenance costs and lower turnover in their buildings.
The release of these studies should give utilities comfort that the multifamily sector isn’t so hard to reach–and that the results will be worth it. Everyone, and above all low-income renters, will be happier and healthier if we act now. And for any reader who is ready to take the plunge, too, here is NHT staff’s favorite kale smoothie recipe.
Annika Brink is the Energy Efficiency Advisor at the National Housing Trust. She works with state and local partners across Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Illinois to make multifamily housing healthy and affordable through energy efficiency.