Green Renting Revolution

Ecofriendly options emerge for tenants who band together

Green Renters

Image by Peter O. Zierlein / www.peterozierlein.com

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Read savvy tips from the alternative press on greening your rental pad .

Renters from New York to Seattle have spent years at the mercy of their landlords, rhythmically reciting mantras like “If I owned my own house, I’d definitely install solar panels.” How many days have they spent waiting to have drafty windows sealed or leaky faucets fixed—cringing as carbon footprints enlarge to gargantuan craters?

Their powerlessness might soon be history. In 2008 as the U.S. housing market crumbled, the green residential sector continued to flourish, reports TreeHugger (Aug. 26, 2008). As a result, tenants are rapidly gaining genuine leverage to make meaningful decisions about their homes. Green options associated with home ownership—like large-scale building improvements—are no longer improbabilities. But to take full advantage of their opportunities, tenants must reject traditionally passive roles and start tapping into their communities.

Opening communication with neighbors and landlords is the place to begin. “Competition among landlords is fierce,” counsels Philadelphia’s new sustainability magazine Grid (Sept. 2008). Informing your landlord that green initiatives are important to you as a consumer—and rising in importance to others—frames greening as a sensible if not essential investment. Rallying fellow tenants for eco-conscious choices, like reminding a landlord to cool off a scalding-hot water heater, builds the solidarity necessary to influence even bigger change.

Propelling those big green ideas to fruition requires substantial coordination. That’s why the Massachusetts-based Cambridge Energy Alliance is developing a “green lease” in collaboration with the Henry P. Kendall Foundation. “So many renters feel powerless,” says Amy Panek, a Kendall Foundation program officer. “We’re trying to find a way to empower them and give them options similar to those of a home owner.”

The lease, profiled in Conscious Choice (Sept. 2008), is a document (signed in addition to the regular lease) designed to provide incentives to both the profit-minded proprietor and the eco-minded renter. After an energy audit, landlords agree to make green renovations, such as upgrading to energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. In return, tenants agree to pay a fixed monthly energy charge in place of their utility bills to offset the costs of installing improvements.

Still in the draft stages, the green lease has some hurdles to clear. The key one will be effectively addressing the split incentive to ensure that all parties benefit equitably. Then there’s human nature. Shared costs understandably trigger mistrust. “Tenants need to know that their landlords will actually make the improvements they promise,” Panek says. She’s confident the lease will take off once people can see successful examples—and groups of tenants who have already mobilized around green issues will be prime candidates.

To support those forward-thinking landlords who already have gone green, renters in transition can find their next homes by searching Green Renter.com. The innovative property listing service, highlighted in Sustainable Industries (Nov. 2008), allows apartment hunters to browse for homes with green attributes. Though the new website is still heavy on Portland-area housing, GreenRenter plans to branch out nationwide and is already targeting Boston, Chicago, and New York.