Environment and Energy Commission reviews recommendations from rental efficiency report

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A report on how renters assess the energy efficiency of properties came before the Environment and Energy Commission Tuesday and may spur the creation of new resources to make energy information more accessible to renters.

Students Megan Carroll, Dustin Dunstedter and Lelande Rehard of MU's Truman School of Public Affairs conducted the study, which was commissioned by the City of Columbia.

The report highlights a disparity between tenants and landlords on the topic of energy efficiency. Renters do not have adequate motivation to make improvements on properties they may only inhabit for 9 months to a year, and landlords do not always assume the energy costs.

Ultimately there is no incentive for either party to increase the property’s efficiency, improvements are never made and tenants end up paying more than necessary on utilities.

“It’s a community-wide issue,” said Megan Carroll, recent graduate from the Truman School of Public Affairs and co-author of the report. “From what our research shows, it’s hard for students to find properties that are energy efficient, so anybody who rents can benefit from this information.”

According to the report, 88 percent of those polled are likely to consider utility costs when shopping for properties, provided the information is clear and accessible.

"The overall tone is not surprising," Columbia Sustainability Manager Barbara Buffaloe said. "People get the information from the landlord, but they don't know what to do with it."

At the recommendation offered in the report, the commission agreed to discuss plans for a website that would aggregate utilities information for individual properties. Jointly owned by the city and MU, the website would provide context, interpretation and recommendations to interested renters.

"That sort of thing has typically been strongly resisted by landlords, putting out numbers on individual properties," commission member Dick Parker said. He noted that landlords are often concerned that poor management by past renters could reflect unfairly on certain properties.

The commission plans to make make average utility costs available over a 3 to 5 year period, in addition to renter reviews.

“I would love to see the creation of a tenants union,” Carroll said in a phone interview. In addition to a website, the report also proposes a jointly-operated office for MU and the city, which would serve as the hub for a potential renter support program.

Mick Woolf is the housing counselor with Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, an organization that serves renters in a college town demographically similar to Columbia. Carroll feels the program could be a source of inspiration for a local tenants association.

In a phone interview, Woolf said tenant associations are great vehicles for dealing with a range of issues – from reviewing leases for students to prompting landlords to verify that buildings are up to code.

“Energy efficiency would be one component,” Woolf said.

The Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union began in the 1970s as a program supporting students at the University of Illinois, eventually branching out to serve the community at large.

“I would like to see that city-wide,” said Environment and Energy Commission Chairman Karl Skala. “The idea was that a tenants association could look at the data and help renters be better informed on what their energy costs would be.”

The rental efficiency report noted that, though many permanent Columbia residents are seasoned renters, many university students have limited (if any) experience renting.

“Those folks could understand that they stand to save a great deal of money,” Skala said.

Supervising editor is Ann Elise Taylor.

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Mike Martin May 23, 2012 | 7:25 p.m.

As a central city property manager who has spent 10 years of blood, sweat, tears, and dollars helping turn both the houses I buy and the streets they are on from crime infested hell-holes into lovely homes and neighborhoods, the main "market signal" I'm getting from "the City" is that my neighborhoods are blighted, and not worth spending any more money on.

That they are blighted, and in the sights of out-of-town businesses -- you know, the businesses Hizzoner went on and on the other night praising -- for tax abatements; eminent domain abuse; oversight by creepy "boards" staffed with quasi-corrupt little cronies; and a host of other nasties that will do nothing but drag me down -- and everyone else who has cared enough all this time to hang on and hang in.

I've installed super-efficient heat pumps and other energy upgrades to improve energy efficiency in my places, at a cost that exceeds normal air conditioning and heating systems. I go out of my way to let tenants know what I know about utility costs (confidential information, btw -- wonder what privacy laws the city will have to violate to make private billing information public?)

But why would any landlord, especially in the central city, continue all that now? Why continue to pour more money into what is becoming an over-City Hall-ified sinkhole of blithe disregard for even the most basic human dignities?

The only market signal City Hall is sending is to get out while you still can. Smart property owners and managers who really care about neighborhoods will do this, and put their money into other communities, as I am already doing.

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