Like many homes rented by students in Ann Arbor, my house was built over 100 years ago. Due to the antique, inoperable fire alarm still attached to our kitchen wall and the significant breeze felt near a closed window, I cannot help but wonder what level of care has been taken in bringing this home into the 21st century.

The temperature is dropping, and the heating bills are rising. My housemates and I crank up our thermostat but often still feel cold in our home. As an environmentalist, it pains me to think about all of the energy and resources that go into heating this home just to be lost through our outdated windows and poor insulation. Leaking windows are the culprit for 25 to 30 percent of heat loss in a home.

The 2012 Ann Arbor greenhouse gases (GHG) inventory found that the residential sector makes up 22 percent of Ann Arbor greenhouse gas emissions. Over half of Ann Arbor’s housing units are rentals, which means that the energy efficiency of these rental units has a huge impact on the city’s overall GHG emissions. A report shows that energy efficiency upgrades could reduce the United States’ emissions by half.

Landlords have no economic incentives to improve the energy efficiency of a home when renters are responsible for paying electricity and water bills. This is problematic as it leads to extremely outdated homes. Replacing windows or appliances are home improvement measures that are not very invasive or difficult. The payoff is long-term for those paying the bill and for the energy grid we are so reliant on.

However, if landlords cover the costs of utilities and instead incorporate them into monthly rent (which some landlords do already), residents have no monetary incentive to reduce their daily usage. This is an issue of competing split incentives. A compromise is necessary so that both parties have some incentive to reduce energy waste for the benefit of students’ wallets and emissions reductions.

There should be some level of accountability for landlords while still leaving some financial incentive for renters to limit their usage. One option would be if the management company was required to pay the remainder of our bill after it reaches a certain maximum (in a deductible-style). Another would be if it were required to pay a percentage of our utility bills. Or maybe the state should raise the Michigan energy improvement tax incentive of 10 percent so landlords to want to improve the efficiency of the homes they manage.

Another way to hold landlords accountable for the efficiency of their homes would be to simply require that the insulation and appliances of a home meet a certain energy standard, similar to how homes must meet strict fire codes. Just as there is an inspection of fire safety standards, there could be an inspection of efficiency standards where records must be presented to prove that, for example, the windows have been updated in the past 20 years. Like fire hazards and asbestos, energy inefficiency can be considered a safety threat. While perhaps more abstract, outdated homes are indeed contributing to the safety threat of climate change.

Living in an old house rather than an updated apartment is a dramatically less sustainable lifestyle. Simply, the land use and energy for a single-family home outweigh that of a multi-family dwelling unit. That being said, the old homes of Ann Arbor give the city its character and charm. For me, living in one of these old houses has been a wonderful, unique experience.  

There is something to be said for the water usage in old homes as well as energy usage. Landlords and management companies can update water appliances and greatly reduce the water usage of a home. Low-flow faucets and showerheads are an example. Another is simply having a dishwasher, which uses less water than hand-washing (unfortunately, my rental house lacks a dishwasher, like many in Ann Arbor). But, similar to electricity use, there has to be some financial incentive or requirement for a homeowner to want to spend on these water-saving investments.

The student housing market in Ann Arbor is such that this house, built in 1901, will continue to rent out each year, no matter if efficiency updates are made or not. After all, student housing in Ann Arbor has reached 98 percent occupancy each year since 2014. Even with high rent prices and dreadful utility bills, students will continue to pay to live in my house built over a century ago. The paint is chipping, and the bathroom door has no lock, but the thing about this old house that really matters is the functionality of it in the new century.

Leah Adelman can be reached at ladelman@umich.edu.

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