On September 16th, the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, tenants, and multifamily building leaders came together and formed a coalition with organizations and energy experts from the community to devise solutions and strategies to address the energy justice & power dynamics facing renters in Minneapolis. The energy and momentum created here can be channeled to support tenant organizing city-wide. Overall we have to organize to build up enough community pressure to finally induce some productive meetings with landlords who have not been investing in energy efficiency. This is an issue that could bring some radical energy that drew so many into the Minneapolis Energy Options campaign a few years ago.
Starting in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, a group of apartment tenants have begun to organize for energy efficiency improvements to address the twin issues of high energy bills and insufficiently heated/cooled living spaces. Many of the tenants reside in older, poorly insulated buildings with drafty windows and inadequate maintenance to their furnace.
So far, too many landlords of the buildings have been slow-to-act or unresponsive to requests about energy efficiency improvements. As a result the families are experiencing increasingly expensive winter heating bills. When the tenants ask for repairs the management responsible either doesn’t come or they find a way to charge the tenants who ask. In one example, a tenant reported a leak in the bathroom and no one came to fix it, yet he is still responsible for paying his water bill.
In addition to so many windows being drafty and leaky, a large number of the windows in the buildings are just single panes of glass where the tenants can’t open without special technical assistance. If they can’t open windows, then it gets very hot in the summer prompting the residents have to crank up the air conditioning, thus wasting a lot of energy over a preventable problem. Meanwhile, to stay warm because of problems like drafty windows, some tenants had to purchase a space heater which in turn elevates electricity bills. In addition, such archaic windows are also a fire hazard.
Many of the apartment renters at the meeting live in residential properties where each individual apartment unit does not have its own meter. Because the whole building has just one meter, the landlord (of the apartment shop) pays the energy bills to Xcel and Centerpoint while requiring the tenants to provide 90% of the money. The energy bills are rationed so that all individual units pay the same amount regardless of how much they consume on top of rent. We heard of a specific problem landlord who requires each tenant to pay a $50 late fee if they do not pay their energy bill on time. Meanwhile, most every other renter who pays their electric bill straight to Xcel/ Centerpoint, faces no late fee even if they are paying late 6 months in a row.
It is unacceptable to see families in poverty go homeless because of several hundred dollar per month energy utility bills when their building managers/ owners could have easily offered help on energy efficiency and basic repairs. Yet it has happened behind the scenes. A social worker attending the meeting reported a pattern of incidents where tenants ask a problematic landlord for help but will either not deliver or will intimidate the tenants in a way that will damage their housing prospects for life.
This story illustrates the dynamics of an all-too common split incentive problem. It is where tenants who live in old, drafty and inefficient living spaces are on the hook to pay the energy utility bills while the landlord has all control and responsibility to make building upgrades, but does not see any immediate financial benefit in doing so. This split incentive has served to widen income and racial equity gaps: tenants in this group are majority working class and majority Latino, African American, & African. Families already facing many economic barriers say they are then forced to make trade-offs between paying off their energy bill or buying adequate food, medicine, and clothing.
A key problem is so many of the tenants have not been aware that they could call 311 for City Housing inspectors. However then when they come, the city inspectors just send a report to the landlord and the problem gets buried instead of fixed. Then tenants call a different person and the cycle continues.
There are good reasons to push the city to prohibit meter-less billing. Not only does meterless billing basically eliminate the tenants’ financial incentives to conserve. Only energy users who pay a bill straight to Xcel can be able to receive any benefit from low-income energy assistance.
So far the utilities and utility funded programs have focused energy efficiency efforts on single-family home-owner occupied residences and large commercial buildings while a lot of other areas have been left un-addressed. Contrast the abundance of resources available for 1-4 unit residential buildings with the audit CEE program not being accessible to residential buildings above 4 units. How about we in general use Xcel’s money and resources to reach the harder to reach? Even though Xcel and Centerpoint are finally coming out with a joint multifamily energy efficiency program, it leaves no role for tenants because it considers the landlord the decision maker. The landlords have to ask for the program in order for tenants to get any benefits from it and there is no guarantee they will actually use this program.
Xcel/ Centerpoint can modify the multifamily energy efficiency programs to make it easier to renters to use and participate in. Otherwise we need more voices demanding the city to fill in and do things that the problematic landlords will not.
Support networks for renters exist, but the process is too slow. How do we incentivize landlords so that it does not have to be these huge negotiations? The obvious answer is to organize. If just one tenant asks for sensible repairs, a problematic landlord could act dismissive and be like “you are nothing to me”. But when the tenants organize, then the slumlord has to respond or else it is dangerous for them.
So many of the problematic landlords get away with these big atrocities, while so many conscientious landlords are micromanaged for the city about comparatively frivolous issues like tree-trimming and yard issues. Likewise, the city inspectors are good at checking for certain code violations, but have sadly little focus on energy efficiency beyond that.
At the city budget public hearing last December 10th, the dozens of community members who spoke in favor of restoring full funding for the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership all stayed on message by speaking on behalf of racial equity & economic justice at the same time. Taking action on renter energy issues is where the rubber hits the road as far as applying that promise of equity.
We now have the Clean Energy Partnership as an organizing tool to both address these tenant concerns and to provide landlords the support they sometimes need to invest in energy efficiency. One of the highest hopes we have had while pushing for the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership over the past year and a half is that the city and the utilities can finally resolve the split incentive problem when they work together and combine their strongest assets or regulatory authority, energy data and incentives.
An example of something in need of a policy fix is lack of equitable access to energy data is one of the main problems with the energy multi-family efficiency programs currently offered by the utilities and the organizations under their money tree. The landlord/ building owners are the only one who has access to the energy audit reports. This means the tenants are left without the energy data they need to hold their landlords accountable in court if the building performance is indeed below standards.