Columbia residents seek solutions for rental housing energy demand

Thursday, July 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT


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To find out how much energy a property uses, contact utility providers with the address of the property to receive a high and low bill for the past year.

Columbia Water and Light Customer Service can be reached at 874-7380.

AmerenUE can be reached at 800-552-7583.

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COLUMBIA — Sarah Walstron just graduated from MU, and it’s a good thing for her budget because she would be unable to afford for another year the monthly $200 electric bills that she and her two roommates have been paying at her East Campus rental house. It's one of the many rental properties — most of which are decades old — that line the streets of East Campus.

Improving the energy efficiency of rental housing can help tenants save money on utilities, and it could also help the city in its recent push to reduce energy demand.

But how do you pitch that to landlords whose renters foot the utility bills? It’s a problem that has vexed City Council and community advocates for years.

According to the Columbia Water and Light Department, there are 21,525 rental property utility customers in the city. Almost 58 percent of Columbia's housing is rented, and many landlords make renters responsible for paying their utility bills.

Bringing those properties into the fold of energy conservation can be difficult, but Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said it should be one of Columbia's highest priorities.

Skala said Columbia needs to create more incentives for energy-efficient improvements in rental properties.

"Somehow, we have to get the incentives properly placed," Skala said. He noted that simply creating a new incentive or enacting a new building regulation without the proper research and promotion would only cost the city more money.

Promoting efficiency in rental housing will be one of the many strategies that Skala and other council members will keep in mind as they review a 239-page report compiled by engineering firm Burns and McDonnell, said Water and Light spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz. The Integrated Resource Plan is a comprehensive report covering Columbia's energy usage from power plants to customers.

Dan Riepe, owner of Home Performance Experts, has been conducting energy-efficiency inspections on housing in Columbia for a year. He said he gets very few requests from landlords for inspections of rental properties.

"It's going to trickle over into rental properties, eventually," Riepe said, adding that, for now, weatherization is clearly not economical for most landlords.

David Mars, who conducts energy audits for the Water and Light Department, said he has seen the energy efficiency of a lot of rental properties improve over the years. That often happens when a property is sold and its new owner wants to make upgrades. Mars sometimes recommends major fixes or even tearing homes down.

Mars said that during the winter months, when utility costs for heating begin to pile up, roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of his inspections will be rental housing.

Water and Light has considered a rating system for the energy efficiency of Columbia properties in the past, but the idea has not been pursued.

"It's just something that hasn't come forward to the table yet," Kacprowicz said.

Mars said teaching people about energy-efficient lifestyles can be just as important as fixing houses. He also said that educating the public about available programs is necessary.

For landlords, Water and Light offers the same Super Saver Loans to rental property owners as it does to owner-occupied homes. Landlords can opt to have an inspector do an energy audit of their property and then recommend energy-efficiency improvements. After the audit, the landlords can apply for low-interest loans to cover air conditioners, heat pumps, furnaces and insulation.

Skala said city officials also have considered a program for landlords that would be similar to Columbia's Owner-Occupied Housing Rehabilitation Program, which gives loans with 1 percent interest rates to lower-income homeowners for weatherization upgrades.

Chris Stormer, general manager of DBC Rentals, said he has worked with Water and Light's load management program to have radio-controlled switches placed on all of DBC's 443 apartment air conditioners and heat pumps. In exchange, the city gives DBC a 5 percent discount on its summer electric bills.

In 2008, 18,500 people signed up for the program. The combined energy savings for Columbia in one summer amounts to 8 megawatts. One megawatt is enough to power 200 to 300 houses.

"It's a good deal for everybody," Stormer said.

Candy Goran, who owns Goran Rentals with her husband, said that she does what she can to make sure her properties have good furnaces, windows and insulation. She said one of her renters had requested a home energy audit in the past, and she would not be opposed to doing more inspections in the future.

But of the 10 rental companies the Missourian contacted, only DBC and Goran Rentals agreed to comment on the energy efficiency of their housing.

There are agencies other than the city that help with energy-efficiency programs, one of which is Central Missouri Community Action. Renters whose incomes do not exceed 150 percent of the federal poverty level and who have permission from landlords can apply for CMCA’s free weatherization program.

Through the program, CMCA sends an energy auditor to the home to identify problems and solutions. It then puts up the money to pay for the necessary improvements. To expand the project, CMCA has requested $3.64 million in federal stimulus funding.

Adam Tipton of CMCA said he knows energy efficiency and the cost of utilities is a problem for renters. He said he regularly meets people who opt to shut off their Ameren gas service during the summer in an attempt to save money for winter heating bills.

Bill Cantin, coordinator of Columbia's Neighborhood Response Team, said he hears firsthand complaints about high utility bills.

"I know that everybody's strapped for cash. People are constantly coming in for assistance to pay these bills," Cantin said.

Members of the Neighborhood Response Team walk the streets of central Columbia neighborhoods looking for housing code violations, but their influence on energy efficiency is limited.

"We can see the exterior violations, but we can’t get inside," Cantin said.

The CMCA also can directly help with utility bills through its Energy Assistance program, which provides checks for renters and homeowners who are under 135 percent of the poverty level and can’t afford to pay their utility bills. The program’s resources are limited, though.

Tipton said the agency begins handing out summer assistance checks in June but will run out of money in July. And “during the winter, we might see around 100 households a day," he said.

Although the city has yet to create new incentive programs or to establish ordinances to address the energy efficiency of rental properties, Skala predicted some sort of program will likely be in place within a year.

It’s important, he said, because “we all pay for wasting energy."

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John Schultz July 2, 2009 | 10:50 a.m.

Maybe the city should make past energy usage of rental units available to potential renters. Let the renters decide if they think the past charges are reasonable, or look for a different landlord with more energy-efficient offerings. That would give some incentive to landlords to upgrade their units on their own.

When I was house-hunting several years ago, one home owner requested such usage figures from either the city or Boone Electric and had the figures sitting on a table for us to review when we looked at the house.

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