By Travis Atria, on behalf of Gainesville Loves Mountains
By now, most people know the story. Our planet is changing, a balance we barely understand has been disrupted, ice caps are melting faster than scientists predicted, sea levels are rising, crops are threatened by record temperatures in America’s breadbasket, the ocean grows more acidic by the day, and 100-year storms happen almost every year.
We must act. Gainesville Loves Mountains is a group of local volunteers who are doing just that. One of our current campaigns is to pass an Energy Conservation Ordinance (ECO) aimed at reducing energy consumption and costs for rental properties in Gainesville. We hope to propose the ECO to the City Commission and have it passed early next year. Our proposal is influenced by dozens of similar ordinances all over the country—places as diverse as San Francisco, Ann Arbor, Las Vegas and Burlington, Vermont.
Every ECO is set up differently to affect different sectors; some apply to residential housing, others to commercial buildings. We have chosen to focus on rental properties for two main reasons. First, they are prevalent in our college town. Second, we feel they have the most room to improve efficiency, due to the “split incentive” involved with renting, where the tenant has little reason to make improvements to the property, and the landlord has a financial incentive to spend the least amount of money possible to keep the property habitable. In this way, rental properties end up consuming more than their share of energy and releasing more than their share of carbon dioxide.
The ECO can help break both landlord and tenant out of this cycle by setting down a code for improvement that clearly defines which buildings must be improved, what kinds of improvements must be made, when the improvements must be made, who is responsible for funding the improvements and how the system will be monitored.
In order to lessen the burden on landlords, who will bear the brunt of the up-front costs, Gainesville Loves Mountains has begun soliciting their input on how best to structure the ordinance. In addition, we hope to work closely with GRU to determine exactly how much energy might be saved, which properties need targeting and what rebates and incentives are available to cut the costs for landlords. And, we are soliciting the advice of any and every group we can find that might be interested in helping—from the Sierra Club, to the University of Florida community and the League of Women Voters.
Our message to all of these groups is the same—by passing the ECO, we will reduce emissions, cut energy costs and put Gainesville on the cutting edge of the environmental movement. But there is more at stake in our ordinance. We believe it also will provide substantial economic stimulus, not only by hiring local contractors to improve existing buildings, but also by keeping more money in utility customers’ pockets.
There are still other benefits. We believe the ECO is an economic justice issue.
Low-income families pay on average 17 percent of their annual income on home energy costs, while the average household spends only four percent, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Through little or no fault of their own, many people in our community, perhaps even your own neighbors, find themselves saddled with excessive utility costs that push them closer and closer to the edge. With relatively small investments, we can make big differences in their utility bills.
The ECO is also a wise investment for GRU and the city itself. Home retrofits can provide up to 30 percent reduction in energy use, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and investments in energy efficiency generate more jobs per dollar invested than manufacturing, energy generation and energy distribution.
And, the ECO will increase property values. Studies in the U.S. and Europe have shown that homes with some form of green certification typically sell for 10 percent more than those without.
Ultimately, our goal is to achieve all of these benefits. To meet that goal, we need help—help from tenants who support the ECO, help from environmentally conscious citizens, help from the Sierra Club and other likeminded institutions that have the organizational powers and political capital to make a difference, and help from ordinary people who feel moved to do something as simple as contacting a City Commissioner and pledging support for the ECO. It will require some up-front costs, admittedly, and we are working with landlords and GRU to make those costs as small as possible. But, our reward will be a stronger, cleaner, more resilient Gainesville and a healthier planet.
Now, who can put a price on that?