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Why Kansas must invest in energy efficiency for rental housing: It’s good for all of us


Why Kansas must invest in energy efficiency for rental housing: It’s good for all of us

Mar 27, 2024 | 4:33 am ET
By S. Mohsen Fatemi
Why Kansas must invest in energy efficiency for rental housing: It’s good for all of us
As a prairie state, Kansas has abundant opportunity for sun and wind energy production. (Mischa Keijser/Getty Images)

In the heart of America, Kansas stands at a crossroads where policy, ethics, and environmental sustainability intersect. With renters forming a significant portion of our population — 33% statewide, and even more pronounced in key urban centers such as Lawrence (56%), Wichita (42%) and Topeka (41%) — there’s an undeniable imperative that transcends the usual debates surrounding energy sources.

It’s not just about advocating for green energy. It’s about ensuring that every Kansan, regardless of housing status, is included in our vision for a sustainable future.

Data reveals a stark reality: the majority of our residential buildings, more than 75% of them, predate the year 2000. This statistic represents a widespread challenge in energy inefficiency, particularly for rental housing. These older, less-efficient properties not only contribute to higher energy consumption, but they also impose a disproportionate financial burden on our most vulnerable populations.

Research from the National Renewable Energy Lab offers a beacon of hope, indicating that single-family homes in Kansas could achieve a 24% reduction in energy use through feasible upgrades. For example, transitioning to LED lighting can result in substantial savings. With an investment that typically pays for itself within two years, residents can save approximately $114 annually, while on a statewide level, this could translate to savings of up to $44 million.

Implementing drill-and-fill wall cavity insulation, despite a longer payback period of about nine years, offers an annual savings of $336 per residence and could lead to annual statewide savings of $154.6 million. If such potential were realized across all housing types, we’re looking at an annual savings of approximately $192 million in utility bills for Kansas renters. This isn’t just a win for renters, it’s a victory for all of Kansas and frees up  funds that could be redirected toward critical areas like education, health care and economic development.

The inefficiency plaguing our rental housing stock stems largely from the age and condition of these buildings, compounded by a lack of incentive for property owners to invest in improvements. The result is a cycle of high energy consumption and high utility bills, with the burden falling squarely on tenants.

However, this cycle can be broken. By prioritizing energy efficiency upgrades in rental properties, Kansas can lead the way in creating a more equitable and sustainable future.

Kansas has a wealth of legislative avenues to foster energy efficiency within its rental housing sector. Setting energy efficiency standards for rental properties ensures that all dwellings adhere to predetermined energy usage criteria. Incentivizing landlords through tax rebates, grants or credits for making energy-efficient improvements could catalyze widespread property enhancements. Implementing energy-efficient building mandates for new constructions and significant renovations, alongside obligatory energy audits for rental properties, would not only elevate the standards of new buildings but also highlight the energy performance of existing ones, prompting necessary enhancements.

Adopting utility bill transparency policies would arm potential tenants with critical information regarding their future energy expenses. Encouraging public-private partnerships for energy efficiency projects can harness collective financial resources, while broadening the scope of weatherization assistance programs to include more rental units offers direct support to low-income households by facilitating access to free or low-cost energy improvements. Moreover, leveraging the “Pay As You Save” model — a financing method already familiar to utilities like Evergy, yet  not adopted statewide — presents a unique opportunity. This model allows for investments in energy efficiency without upfront costs, with repayments made through savings on utility bills, ensuring the benefits outweigh the costs.

This suite of legislative tools represents just a starting point for innovative approaches to revolutionizing Kansas’s rental market.

Finally, beyond mere environmental and economic considerations, addressing the energy efficiency crisis of the rental market stands as a moral imperative: Every resident of Kansas, irrespective of housing status, deserves access to affordable and sustainable living standards. As Kansans, we have the collective power to advocate for policies reflecting fairness, sustainability, and inclusivity.

Kansas officials should prioritize investments in energy efficiency for rental housing, easing the burden on at least one-third of our fellow Kansans and averting wastage amounting to millions of dollars. Let us set a precedent, demonstrating that environmental stewardship and social equity can go hand in hand, embodying the Kansan spirit of caring for our fellow community members.

S. Mohsen Fatemi is pursuing a Ph.D. in the school of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas, focusing on sustainable energy governance, policy and justice. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.