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Looking to Rent Energy-Efficient Housing?

In an effort to make rentals more sustainable, 14 college towns banded together to create a website that shows people what they would pay in utilities.

RentRocket color-codes properties by the cost of their utilities.
RentRocket color-codes properties by the cost of their utilities.
When prospective tenants check out a new place, they want to know what the monthly rent will be. They ask how many bedrooms it has, what the amenities are and whether or not it allows pets. One question they almost never ask, however, is how energy efficient it is.

For a town like Bloomington, Ind., that’s a real problem. Bloomington is home to the University of Indiana, and half of the town’s residents are college students or university employees. As a result, two-thirds of the city’s housing units are rentals. “That has a huge impact on our ability to meet our sustainability goals,” says Jacqueline Bauer, the city’s sustainability coordinator. The problem? If the landlord pays the utility costs, the tenant has no incentive to control how much energy she uses. Conversely, if the tenant pays the utilities, the landlord has no incentive to invest in, say, a new energy-efficient furnace.

That’s where RentRocket comes in. Developed by the city, the website allows potential renters not only to see the basic amenities a property offers, but also to see its utility costs. City officials pitched the idea for the site two years ago at an Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) meeting. It was so popular that 14 cities -- all college towns and all struggling to address various sustainability issues in their housing stock -- immediately signed on.

RentRocket works like this: First, the website asks renters to share the average monthly cost of their gas and electric bills. Second, it allows landlords to list properties. The site ranks units based on their utility costs. Right now, says Bauer, a property owner doesn’t see the market value of energy upgrades because there’s not a great way to advertise those improvements. RentRocket, which went live in January, aims to give landlords a better way to do that. Currently, there’s only data for Bloomington available, but Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbia, Mo.; and Evanston, Ill., are building out their databases now. 

The idea has drawn some skepticism. Critics point out that it’s hard to get people to share private information about utility costs. It’s even harder, they say, to get them to share it over time. Funding is also an issue. Money to develop and run the site, which so far has come from two USDN grants, runs out next month. Bloomington hopes to get more cities involved to keep the project going and, eventually, to expand it to include additional data, such as recycling options and accessibility to alternative modes of transit. 

Interestingly, the city is expressly not marketing RentRocket as a “green” site. “We deliberately chose a name that is just about rentals,” Bauer says. The goal is to get renters thinking about sustainability factors alongside everything else and to get landlords to see the value in efficiency investments.

For now, the project is still very small: Only 1 to 2 percent of the properties listed on the site have energy data. But if it’s successful, it could not only help create what Bauer calls “a smarter housing market,” it could even help shape the city’s own sustainability planning. “The city would have a better idea of where the least efficient properties are,” says Bauer. “It will let us develop programs to target those areas and to help us meet our sustainability goals."

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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