Checklist: Green apartments, here we come

Greening local apartments could be a win-win

Nobody was holding a gun to their heads. It’s not even required by law.

The 77 businesses that have obtained certification as a Sacramento Sustainable Business did so out of choice. Some companies saw greening their business as the right thing to do, while others did so to attract new customers or save on their energy bills. And the Business Environmental Resource Center, which operates the sustainable-business program, says another 70 businesses are waiting in the pipeline. This is all since the green-business program began only 18 months ago.

A county program started in 1993, BERC provides compliance assistance and promotes the good stuff local businesses do, receiving additional funding from such entities as the city of Sacramento, SMUD, the regional water authority and local air-quality district. The popularity of the center’s sustainable-business program may hinge on one vital aspect: The certification process—which gauges water and energy conservation, pollution prevention, solid-waste reduction and green building—is streamlined and relatively simple.

Those people interested in greening rental housing in the Sacramento area say this checklist and its simplicity will come in handy as a coalition of housing representatives, city officials, conservation experts and waste haulers attempt to establish a verification and recognition program for eco-friendly apartment communities. And what better way to get the ball rolling than to dovetail off a reliable program already created?

The green apartment movement should be a win-win for everyone. Tenants benefit from a healthier, more comfortable living environment and reduced energy bills, while property owners have one more way to attract tenants.

“Apartments can use ‘being green’ to their advantage to drive down their vacancy rates,” said Clark Whitten, division director for BERC, adding that the majority of companies certified by the center say business has picked up specifically because of the green labeling.

There’s the sense that property owners and managers want to do something, but they just don’t know what to do, said Jim Lofgren, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley, during a meeting at SN&R in July. But besides the obvious ecological benefit, are sustainability upgrades worth the effort for landlords? What kind of upfront costs are we talking here, and what’s the payback period? These are the questions that the coalition needs to hammer out.

As BERC learned, the bar shouldn’t be set too high, at least, not at first. When it comes to greening rental housing, some low-hanging fruit exists. A property manager recently received $7,000 in rebates to install new water-conserving toilets with assistance from the Sacramento Suburban Water District, according to SSWD water conservation coordinator Linda Higgins. And SMUD offers rebates for Energy Star-rated appliances, which our local utility provider identified as an easy energy-efficient measure, along with the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs or light-emitting diodes. Another low-hanging fruit is simply educating apartment managers about reducing peak-energy load demand.

“We would love to have every apartment complex that has a swimming pool to not run their filtration system during our peak, from 4 to 7 p.m.,” said Richard Oberg, principal demand side specialist for SMUD.

However, Oberg said, multifamily housing presents its share of obstacles. Besides the whole owner-vs.-occupant conundrum (an owner pays for upgrades and tenants receive the financial benefit of lower electric bills), there’s also the old-vs.-new apartment complex dilemma. New buildings in California must meet the Title 24 building-standards code for energy efficiency. But what about the structures built back in the 1970s or earlier: How can these facilities be incorporated fairly into a green-rental certification and recognition program?

Then there is the issue of recycling. Although waste-hauler representatives said some apartment communities are “phenomenal” in terms of recycling, most are subpar.

“The [recycling] program is only as successful as the manager. If he doesn’t live and breathe it, it’s not going to happen,” said Dave Sikich, president of Atlas Disposal Industries. There’s also the logistical dilemma of squeezing recycling bins into tight enclosures at smaller units. And if a renovation is required, landlords need to be willing to take on that cost (the city of Sacramento requires all new commercial buildings reserve space for both garbage and recycling bins). Of course, if an apartment complex already has two trash bins, the manager can simply replace one with a recycling bin.

“What we’ve found is that by these very simple measures, people actually changed their patterns,” Whitten advised the group. “You want to keep it simple and achievable.”

The coalition will meet again in a few weeks to flesh out a green-rental certification checklist and hopefully unveil a program by the fall. So be ready, landlords and tenants: Green rental housing is coming to Sacramento.