In Los Angeles, Renters Want Their Own Green New Deal

Residents of the city’s affordable housing units don’t normally get prioritized for energy efficiency upgrades. That’s about to change.

Some 200 low-income renters and their supporters protest the increasing burden of rising rents and threats of eviction, ahead of a City Council Housing Committee meeting.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Los Angeles doesn’t have time to waste. The city reels from one extreme weather event to the next: drought and wildfires here, torrential rains and accompanying mudslides there. Out of necessity, it’s racing to keep up with the growing impacts of climate change through environmentally progressive policies, such as its vision for zero-emissions ports and investments in water recycling. Innovations like these are part of the reason why L.A.was recently named one of 25 winners of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, an initiative of Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with NRDC and other organizations.

Building on the momentum, earlier this year, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a Green New Deal for L.A., which aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The plan requires a careful dance of cooperation among residents, businesses, and community organizations. It also weaves some environmental equity into the fabric of the plan, in part by prioritizing energy efficiency upgrades to affordable housing, a strategy that advocates for low-income communities and is essential to meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goal.

The City of Angels is also a city of renters, but by and large their homes have suffered from years of underinvestment and poor upkeep. Low-income renters spend a higher proportion of their income on energy bills than wealthier households do, in part because they haven’t had the same access to the rebates and credits that incentivize energy efficiency retrofits. Their homes also tend to be older: Nearly 60 percent of multifamily buildings were built before the first U.S. energy code was created in 1970, says Sarah Hill, a program manager with the Association for Energy Affordability (AEA). The result is too-hot or too-cold buildings and too-high corresponding utility bills. L.A.’s plan is a chance to address that. “I think the plan does a good job of highlighting that this is both an immediate need and an immediate opportunity,” Hill says.

Meanwhile, a local utility is already doing its part to help correct this inequity. The board of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) voted in 2018 to spend $100 million over five years to give lower-income renters in multifamily housing complexes a break. They’ll get efficiency upgrades and retrofits that will make it possible for an estimated  45,000 households to share in energy cost savings. The emphasis on renters is a novel approach for the utility, despite the fact that residents of buildings with two or more units make up more than half of the utility’s customers. “Reaching low-income multifamily customers”—both property owners and their residents—“hasn’t been LADWP’s priority, but this is slowly changing,” says Blanca de la Cruz, sustainable housing program director with the nonprofit advocacy group California Housing Partnership (CHP).

Prior to this development, LADWP’s Home Energy Improvement Program had a four- to six-month waiting list, notes Ben Russak, deputy director of environmental health and justice for the housing nonprofit Liberty Hill Foundation. One of the major hurdles for renters has been the fact that all energy efficiency retrofit programs require landlord approval, he says. “This is a significant barrier when conducting outreach to low-income households, who more often than not have a contentious relationship with the owner or manager of their residence, if they have any relationship at all.”

There’s also a concern around gentrification that stops some renters from pursuing efficiency retrofits. “There is a real fear that these improvements will lead to higher rents that may more than offset any savings on utility bills,” Russak says. “Yet when you consider the relative energy inefficiency of low-income housing, finding solutions to these issues is an imperative if L.A. is to reach the net-zero goals of its Green New Deal.”

Advocates like Russak and Hill caution that to be successful, efficiency retrofits must tackle the whole building so that both landlords and tenants benefit. Current efficiency programs often specialize in upgrading only one feature of a home, such as lighting or attic insulation. And they might serve only one resident at a time, depending on tenant schedules, Hill explains. The results can be scattershot. “Sometimes what I’ll find in the field is we’ve got attic insulation only over one unit or only over the hallways,” she says.

More effective programs include an energy audit to determine a building’s specific energy profile and develop a customized solution to address its inefficiencies. Those bespoke solutions come with technical analysts’ assistance and financial incentives. But owners often need to be persuaded to invest the time it takes to address more than a quick weatherization upgrade or lighting changes, Hill notes. She explains how clients will typically reach out to AEA to ask for help in replacing a single appliance, such as an old boiler that’s not code compliant. At this juncture, she sees part of her role as broadening the conversation. “I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we talk about the opportunities for electrifying this building, doing some fuel switching from gas to electric, putting in some heat pump technology,’ for example,” she explains, describing a common interaction. “That can really reduce the carbon footprint [and] bring costs way, way down, in particular when it’s coupled with solar and renewable energy that the program can help install.”

One existing program that has already seen some success in reaching affordable housing tenants is the California Low Income Weatherization Program (LIWP). This program invites owners of multifamily buildings to apply for assistance to switch their natural gas appliances to electric ones and to tap into community solar grids. In return, participants see an average savings of 40 percent or more per property. The program has been popular. “It has a waitlist of 300 or more property owners to serve affordable housing, so we know it can be done,” says Maria Stamas, NRDC’s western director of energy affordability and an advisor to the California Energy Efficiency for All coalition, which helps renters connect with programs like LIWP.

Stamas notes that there are other direct benefits that residents receive from the program besides financial ones. For example, tenants of Miramar Towers, an affordable housing complex for the elderly and disabled in L.A.’s Westlake neighborhood, saw their building’s retrofit—which included a new, more efficient water heater—as a solution to some of the daily struggles they faced. “We heard directly from residents in anticipation of those upgrades that what they were most interested in, aside from the bill savings, was improving the health and comfort of their units. They would turn on a faucet and wait five to ten minutes for it to become warm,” she says.

Still, the process of obtaining an efficiency retrofit can be cumbersome, involving tight timelines, numerous decision makers, buildings that are unique in their needs, and no one-size-fits-all solutions. Malen Rodriguez, director of asset management for the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (HCHC), knows this well. HCHC owns a 54-unit, four-story building in Hollywood, many of whose tenants are senior citizens and low-income families taking part in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (aka Section 8). In 2016, HCHC undertook a whole-building retrofit via LIWP that tackled lighting, low-flow showerheads, toilets, and boilers. “It’s not easy,” Rodriguez says, “because it’s a full-time job. You have to do all the analysis with LIWP, meet with them, inspect the property, meet with vendors.” At one point, she recalls with a laugh, Rodriguez found herself retrieving empty LED light bulb packaging from the garbage, because the LIWP program needed certain data printed on the boxes in order to keep track of its energy savings. “We had to run after the trash guy to return the trash!” 

Despite the difficulties, Rodriguez feels the nearly yearlong, whole-building retrofit was worth it. “The first year that we did it, 2016, our gas [bill] was lowered by 27 percent and water [bill] was lowered by 16 percent,” she says. That’s money that the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation was able to put back into the building by painting common areas, for example.

Luckily, city agencies are now planning to work with one another and with organizations specializing in energy efficiency (including NRDC) to help create a one-stop-shopping resource center that could have avoided Rodriguez’s trash-chasing adventures. The Green New Deal aims to coordinate regulations and technical requirements and to leverage existing infrastructure to reach more tenants. The shared goal is “to significantly increase the number of participating affordable housing properties,” says CHP’s De la Cruz.

Workers stand to benefit from the new plan too. Stamas, who was one of the authors of the Affordable Homes First: Advancing a Green New Deal for Los Angeles Renters study, commissioned a jobs potential analysis to see how many quality union jobs could be created if Los Angeles rolled out a suite of cost-effective upgrades to all LADWP customers residing in low-income, multifamily housing. “We showed that 3,000 full-time union jobs could be created, and that’s huge,” she says. “We also worked with labor groups to ensure all new jobs meet union-approved standards. So we see this as a really holistic offering and holistic package of recommendations that will have multiple benefits even beyond the energy savings and bill savings at home.”

One of those benefits, of course, is the reduction of carbon emissions. The Affordable Homes First study found that specifically, upgrading affordable housing would offset 220,000 metric tons of carbon—comparable to the annual pollution from 42,000 passenger vehicles. And those are savings that no one can afford to turn down.

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