Renter Protections in Equitable Building Decarbonization

Tangible resources for the design and implementation of equitable electrification

By Jenny Low

Renters are roughly 45% of California’s population, but many have limited agency to make their homes more climate-friendly due to lease limitations, financial constraints and their lack of authority. At best, this means tenants miss out on the health benefits of decarbonized homes and bear greater cost burdens due to increasing fossil fuel prices. At worst, programs that mandate home retrofits and upgrades can lead to increased rent burden, more expensive utilities and even displacement.

Build It Green’s Affordable, Equitable Building Decarbonization Working Group recognizes equitable decarbonization for renters to be a pivotal issue.

Our Approach

To better understand how the working group could help address these issues, we reached out to regional stakeholders and partners already working at this intersection. We had two questions in mind: what strategic efforts are currently underway for designing and implementing equitable electrification programs and what tangible resources are available for cities and program designers?

What We Learned

Firstly, there are several high-level resources that focus on how to approach the design of inclusive, equitable decarbonization plans. These frameworks, guidelines and recommendations are mostly intended for cities, planners and advocates: The Greenlining Institute’s Equitable Building Electrification – A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities report, Institute for Market Transformation’s Building Performance Standard Module: Housing Affordability Policy Brief, Building Electrification Institute’s Resources on Building Electrification and Arup’s Los Angeles Affordable Housing Decarbonization Study Phase 2.

Secondly, some California cities are in the early phases of using frameworks in their planning, community engagement and policy design processes. One of which being Alameda’s Draft Equitable Building Electrification Plan, which includes an equity statement in its principles: “Electrification policy should also support housing and anti-displacement policy.” 

San Jose’s Existing Building Electrification Framework includes a focus area that states: “There is a critical need to ensure building electrification efforts do not contribute further to displacement or increased costs for low- and moderate-income families.”

San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan calls upon the city to “develop and adopt tenant protection and anti-displacement policies for renters in buildings transitioning to efficient and all-electric systems” by 2023. San Francisco is also developing a Climate Equity Hub that will support homeowners, renters and workers through the transition to all-electric buildings.

In Los Angeles, the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office (CEMO) held their inaugural Climate Equity LA Series earlier this year, and frontline community organizations like Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) participated to educate Los Angeles stakeholders on equitable building decarbonization.

Lastly, there are a few pilot programs already in the works. Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) is collaborating with the state Technology and Equipment for Clean Heating (TECH) initiative on a potential pilot for a tariff-on-bill financing program that would allow renters and property owners to experience the benefits of energy improvements without higher energy bills. 

Rather than having them pay at the time of installation, SVCE helps finance the upgrades upfront and recovers part of the cost through bill neutrality: charging a monthly “tariff” on bills that is set up to be less than estimated bill savings. The tariff stays with the property when renters leave, extending the financing period long enough to keep monthly payments low and accessible for low- and moderate-income customers. 

Other utilities like PG&E are starting to incorporate tariff-on-bill in their equity toolkit, although not all proposed tariff on-bill programs require bill neutrality or automatically apply the tariff charge to successor occupants. In San Joaquin Valley, there is an ongoing pilot focused on retrofitting existing multifamily deed-restricted homes.

Next Steps

These pilot programs are important starting points, but it was clear from conversations with stakeholders that more tangible tools and resources are needed. Some of the individuals we spoke with shared that model codes, effective enforcement pathways, examples across a range of local jurisdictions and guidelines to consider when shaping policies and programs would be helpful. With these types of resources, more jurisdictions and program implementers would be empowered to design and accelerate equitable building decarbonization programs that support renters in their communities.

The Affordable, Equitable Building Decarbonization Working Group hopes to help this process along, and we would love to collaborate with others in this space. If you would like to get in touch, please reach out to Program Associate Jenny Low at jlow@builditgreen.org.

Jenny Low is Program Associate at Build It Green. She can be reached at jlow@builditgreen.org.

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