RentRocket Aims to Solve Chicken-and-Egg Problem of Rental Energy Efficiency

Bloomington, Ind.’s Web app provides renters with information that they otherwise might not consider, potentially leading to demands for better housing.

by / January 5, 2016
RentRocket color-codes properties by the cost of their utilities. (RentRocket)

If a renter pays for electricity, why would the landlord pay for energy-efficiency improvements? And if a landlord pays for electricity, why would their tenants cut their energy usage?

For a person like Jacqui Bauer, whose job title includes the word “sustainability” and who works in a town where two-thirds of the housing is made up of rentals, those questions posed a bit of a problem. So she looked for a way to bridge the gap between tenants and landlords — and found a method she thinks will help.

Using grant money, Bauer built a website that puts information in renters’ faces that they otherwise might not consider.

See, Bauer had some insight into the students at Indiana University — a group of young, mobile people that makes up a huge portion of Bloomington’s population. She had survey results from the students and knew that they care a lot about how much their rent is going to be at any prospective house or apartment. But most of the time, they didn’t think much further than that.

“There were big components of living costs that weren’t registering in their thinking,” said Bauer, Bloomington’s sustainability coordinator.

That includes things like the cost of electricity, water, gas and transportation. So on the website, Bauer’s development team built all those details — or the capability to publish those details, anyway — into a map. Anyone can go to RentRocket.org and see a list of rental properties that includes photos, rental price, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms as well as things like utility costs and recycling availability.

“The original goal for the project was essentially to provide individuals who are looking … for rentals as a housing option [with] more information in order to make more informed decisions about their choices,” said Rick Dietz, Bloomington’s director of information technology services.

The idea is that if more renters in a city start asking landlords about utility costs, or demanding lower utility costs through market trends, it will influence landlords to make energy-efficient improvements. The link there has been demonstrated nationwide, in general terms: The Institute for Market Transformation, which advocates for open access to building energy usage statistics, has noted several studies that show that buildings with lower power costs tend to have higher rents and lower vacancy rates.

“This information has never been available before,” Bauer said. “So our hypothesis is that with better information, tenants are going to demand better housing.”

RentRocket is available in more than just Bloomington. The core participants in the project right now are Bloomington; Columbia, Mo.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Evanston, Ill., and Burlington, Vt. — all college towns without huge populations. That was intentional, according to Dietz.

“Many of these cities have initiatives … housed within the city that address those concerns, whether it’s mayors’ climate change commitments [or] sustainability directors where they have actual staff,” he said. “Universities often focus on these issues as well.”

Bauer admits that the project is still very much a work in progress. Some of the cities are lacking data, but that’s a big focus of the project right now — getting more people to submit.

That can get a little tricky.

“Utilities won’t share it [because] they have concerns about privacy,” she said. “Landlords usually don’t have it since the accounts are often in tenants’ names. So that really leaves the tenants.”

To address this, the website has a crowdsourcing feature. Anybody can quickly sign up and enter information about a residence. That creates some accuracy concerns, but that doesn’t worry Bauer for the same reason it doesn’t worry the founders of Wikipedia.

“The hope is that since everyone can access the data, that there will be some self-correction happening,” she said.

There’s one place where the city was able to provide direct energy usage statistics: Columbia. That city owns its own utility company, and so was able to hand over data that Bauer’s team could plug directly into the map. But that’s the exception to the rule, she said.

In the long term, Bauer wants to establish robust data collection and submission in the participating cities and expand the website to include more locations. She also wants to find a more sustainable source of funding for RentRocket, since its grant money ran out in December. That could include looking for more grants and possibly incorporating as a nonprofit.

“We specifically set this up as a dot-org, not as a dot-com, because we see this more as a public good,” she said.

 

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.