Build It Green recently hosted an ‘electrifying’ panel for Affordable Housing Month Silicon Valley, a month-long series of events organized by [email protected] We had an incredible lineup of speakers, who shared strategies and considerations for advancing electrification efforts without sacrificing renter well-being.

Watch the event recording here and dive into our reference handout here.

Most cities allow landlords to pass the cost of upgrades onto renters. It is important to identify electrification processes and programs that protect renters from rent increases, allowing them to stay in place and benefit from electrification. 

California is aiming to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, and home electrification is a vital step on the pathway to realizing the full benefits of a clean future. By electrifying gas- and petroleum-powered appliances and building operations, such as hot water heaters, ovens, and stovetops, we can lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve the air we breathe inside of our homes (and out).

Cities across California have already started rolling out roadmaps to electrify new homes, and similarly, transitioning existing homes to be healthy and safe for residents is an important next step. However, electrification can create difficulties for renters, who make up roughly 45% of California’s population. Unlike homeowners, renters cannot easily introduce changes into their homes and face a number of financial challenges. In two-thirds of California zipcodes, renter households already spend at least 30% of their income on rent, and according to recent data, one in seven Californians are behind on their rent payments. On top of rent, energy bills eat up additional income and become energy burdens to shoulder, which can be especially severe for households with low incomes. These financial and practical limitations mean that renters who want to electrify are often unable to, and, without thoughtful design and implementation, electrification can drive rent and utility bill increases that lead to displacement.

Build It Green hosted the event “Renters Empowered in an Electrified Future” to build awareness around this critical conversation on equitable electrification. What can renters do to use more clean electricity and transition away from fossil fuels? Are there collective actions that can be taken to actively involve and support renters in an electrified future? How can we better design electrification programs to address the needs of renters?

We had an engaged group of over 50 attendees—including city and county staff, utility strategists, and energy and building professionals—tune in to start getting answers to these questions. Farhad Farahmand, Associate Director of Energy Policy at TRC, did a wonderful job moderating our lineup of speakers:

⚡ Sean Armstrong, Managing Principal of Redwood Energy

⚡ Chelsea Kirk, Assistant Director of Policy and Research for Building, Equity, and Transit at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE)

⚡ Ben Cooper, Program Manager at StopWaste

Attendees were able to learn about electrification for renters much more comprehensively as a result of the speakers’ wide range of experiences and professional backgrounds. Photo courtesy of Build It Green staff.

Each speaker shared different perspectives on addressing electrification for renters. Sean focused on some of the individual, permitted actions renters can take to electrify their homes. Chelsea shared takeaways and recommendations informed by decarbonization focus groups SAJE conducted with low-income tenants in Los Angeles. Ben provided background on holding listening sessions with renters and owners of naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) properties to help structure energy reduction programs in a way that meets their needs. NOAH refers to residential rental homes that are affordable (i.e. below area median rent) even without a direct government subsidy, typically due to their age or condition.

Lessons from the Speakers

Tap or mouse over the boxes below to learn more.

Sean kicked things off with optimism, reminding us that the nation’s last equitable electrification project—bringing affordable electricity to all rural communities in the late 1930s and 1940s—was a roaring success. He shared his perspective on how individuals can channel that ambition and act to advance electrification efforts today. 

Individual Actions for Renters

There are multiple examples of portable, pluggable, roll-around electrical devices and appliances renters can have in their homes without involving a landlord. These include:

Heat pumps for heating and cooling
Two-burner induction ranges
Countertop ovens
Ventless washer-dryer combos
240 V plug strips

Chelsea’s presentation centered the lived experiences of renters with low incomes by focusing on key insights from the focus groups SAJE conducted. Cost overwhelmingly arose as the tenants’ biggest concern—this is because most cities allow landlords to pass costs onto renters for upgrades, even in rent-controlled units.

Lessons from Tenants

Tenants also face difficulties around accessibility like language barriers, relationships with landlords, and building maintenance and safety issues (e.g. pest infestations) that need to be addressed before electrification can even be considered. Local government, utilities, and decarbonization program managers can start addressing these challenges by partnering with community-based organizations, engaging local housing agencies to enforce renter protections, and taking holistic approaches to retrofit work.

Ben brought his perspective as a program administrator of the Bay Area Multifamily Building Enhancement (BAMBE) Program, and shared how naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) is a vital equity consideration for the program’s redesign. The BAMBE program has historically not served many NOAH properties.

Support from Official Programs

Because NOAH property owners are a hard segment to reach and often lack the funds for even heavily subsidized energy upgrade projects, NOAH renters have been unable to tap into programs that can lower their bills and increase the safety and comfort of their homes. The BAMBE team is actively connecting with these groups to address this gap and build a more equitable program. Their listening sessions are ongoing, but have been productive as a result of working with trusted local facilitators and government teams with strong community roots from the start.

What concerns me is that the owners will take advantage of this and kick us out. They use the excuse of having to construct the apartments to raise our rents. It’s beautiful, all of this. But the cost is concerning. It’s going to affect us.

Isabel, SAJE Focus Group Participant Tweet

At the event’s conclusion, Farhad asked the speakers about ‘low-hanging fruit’: what are some attainable actions that have the potential to greatly enable electrification in homes? Sean advised replacing HVAC systems, the number one gas use in homes in California. Chelsea suggested more direct installation and replacement programs for appliances reaching end-of-life as a way to support electrification without passing costs onto tenants. Ben recommended utilizing BAMBE expert technical staff, who are free to engage and provide building owners with comprehensive, site-specific plans to improve a property’s energy usage.

While their focus areas and experiences are different, all three speakers helped us build a shared understanding around a core idea: whether you’re a renter, building owner, or program manager, there are actions you can take to help achieve a fully electrified future. It is critical that we build more navigable programs, expand the availability of resources for tenants, and continue holding dialogues with renter groups to make sure the path to that future is as equitable as possible.

This event was packed with information, and what you have read here is only part of the story. Head over to our YouTube to watch the event recording, and check out the presentation slides at the links below. We’ve also put together a reference on key terms, speakers’ publications, and other resources on equitable electrification for renters—we hope you spend some time diving in!

Lastly, if you’re a professional with an interest in electrification, Build It Green is regularly hosting two cross-sector, collaborative groups related to the topic. The first is the Panel Optimization Work and Electrical Reassessments (POWER) group, which discusses opportunities and barriers around electrical panels. The second is the Affordable, Equitable Decarbonization working group, which is currently exploring holistic approaches to accelerating equitable and affordable decarbonization in California housing.