Rent dreams

Sacramento rental housing attempts to go green

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

You should be angry.

The iron gates of Richistan are closed off to you, not that you’d want to be part of that society, with its white-picket fences and trust-fund kids anyways. The plutocracy reigns supreme once again, and we’re living in what The Nation and others have deemed the second Gilded Age. But you’re not one of the economic elite.

You should be resentful. Of America’s deepening wealth inequality, of rising gas prices and corresponding inflation, of the carefree tone of this column—how easy and cost-effective green building is and isn’t it fun to choose eco-friendly options and don’t you just feel better about yourself now?

You don’t own a house. You rent a two-bedroom apartment. And the landlord couldn’t care less about lowering your monthly energy bill. And you’re supposed to be excited about green building? So you’re annoyed. Understandably.

But imagine this: What if homeowners and property owners weren’t the only lucky ones to directly benefit from sustainable design and energy efficiency and healthier indoor air quality? What if there was a way to make rental housing greener?

It’s not going to be easy. There’s this disconnect: One person pays for upgrades and someone else pays the power bill. The landlord pays for landscaping with drought-tolerant plants and deciduous trees, and the tenant benefits from the flora’s beauty and shade. Bridging this gap may not be simple, but people are trying. And the incentive is there because about 30 percent of people in our region live in rental housing, thus the energy savings would be substantial.

About 20 of those people—city officials, rental housing representatives, recycling experts—met at SN&R in mid-June to identify ways to encourage apartment communities to implement widespread conservation efforts and publicly recognize those that do so.

“How do I get a busy property manager to buy into one more thing on their plate?” asked Jim Lofgren, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley, a group of property owners and managers of about 80,000 rental units in the eight-county region.

RHA answered this question before when it partnered with Breathe California of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails to promote smoke-free housing as a new amenity for apartment living. The partnership compelled change through choice. Instead of making smoke-free mandatory, they asked landlords to voluntarily set some of these units aside. Before long, tenants began demanding smoke-free housing, and landlords realized this amenity eased a lot of headaches and liability issues. Lofgren wants RHA to once again develop partnerships that will improve rental housing.

How can apartment buildings become eco-friendly? Compact fluorescent light bulbs and Energy-Star appliances, that’s the easy stuff, but it gets more complicated. Ideally, a property owner would upgrade to a cool roof, add insulation and seal leaks; but coordinating these renovations with tenants is problematic.

“If you’re the renter, you’re not going to change out the air conditioning,” pointed out Paul Lau, director of customer services for SMUD. The local utility provider has a vested interest in green apartments because it committed to reducing its annual energy load 1.5 percent for the next 10 years.

Water conservation might be a good place to start, as many of these measures, such as installing dual-flush toilets or planting drought-tolerant shrubs, are low-impact on tenants.

“We do have renters calling and asking, ‘Why do we have all this grass here? Didn’t the governor just declare a drought?’” said Linda Higgins, conservation coordinator for the Sacramento Suburban Water District, referring to residents’ growing concerns over water-thirsty lawns.

Renters also are the ones asking for more shade coverage at apartment complexes, according to Rob Kerth of the Sacramento Tree Foundation. The foundation distributes free trees through its shade program and receives most calls requesting trees in July, “usually right after they get their SMUD bill,” Kerth said. But property managers aren’t calling.

And then there’s recycling. Space constraints in older apartment complexes make implementing recycling programs challenging. Additionally, it’s notoriously hard to get renters to recycle and landlords to engage in recycling efforts, said the commercial waste hauler representatives who attended the SN&R meeting; and even when they do, levels of participation differ.

But just like what happened with smoke-free housing, once people regularly start asking landlords questions, such as, “What will my electric bill be like if I live here?” maybe property owners will be motivated to use green amenities as a way to attract tenants. Or another way for tenants to look at it, as Lofgren suggested: “Are you renting an SUV, or are you renting a Prius?”