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P.J. Nutting

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SmartRegs Gets Its Legs, Takes Some Heat

Posted: 05/21/10 06:32 PM ET

Originally published on New Era News

The Boulder City Council began its first reading of the much-discussed SmartRegs proposal at their meeting on May 18th. In witness of an over-capacity meeting hall, mayor Susan Osborne said it was, "the most important issue we'll tackle this year, and the most complex." Landlords and renters passionately agreed.

If you haven't heard of SmartRegs yet, you surely haven't been to New Era Colorado. We've been a big player in supporting SmartRegs, which would update Boulder's housing code to set energy efficiency standards for rental units. Landlords would have to maintain their properties to similar standards held for new properties -- but to a lesser degree, according to the introductory presentation given by Yael Gichon, Residential Program Strategist for the Local Environmental Division.

Currently, there are no such regulations for rented units, and New Era found on its latest bus trip that many Boulder renters were relieved to hear they were due for an energy upgrade. As a renter in Boulder, and on a personal note, I have found it was hard enough to get my landlord to bolt my toilet into the floor so it didn't swivel like an office chair. It took them months to fix a couple of bolts; I can't imagine how long it would take to replace my ancient, drafty windows or lay down a little weather stripping.

The City Council is currently chasing after their sustainability goals outlined in their 2006 Climate Action Plan. In order to catch up to international carbon standards, they are eyeing the 19,000 rental units whose energy use is unregulated. I even heard Mayor Osborne refer to "when" it passes instead of "if" during preliminary discussion.

Surprisingly, the majority of the landlords in attendance, who would face the financial burden, thought it was a great idea. Jim Hartland, who has rented properties in Boulder and Denver, kicked off the public hearing by encouraging the council to work even faster to pass the new regulations. He said he has already updated many of his properties for energy efficiency and mentioned the retroactive incentives that SmartRegs might give to those already heading in that direction. Paul Sheldon, who rents out properties in Boulder and Durango and has worked on Aspen's city planning board, said regulation would level the playing field for landlords who had already invested the money. He said it was "unfair" that other landlords were able to rent low-efficiency units with no consequence.

"The city won't allow a property with gushing water; why would they allow gushing energy?" added Tom Volckhausen.

But even with all the support, it was clear that many landlords were afraid the details of the regulations were ill-advised. Sheila Horton, executive director of the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, passed out bright-colored paper so landlords could show support without applause, and throughout the night there were talking points that raised a flutter of neon paper.

The proponents of the measure wore green 'Renters With Benefits' shirts for visual support. New Era Colorado also gathered 504 postcards of support from members of the community. Julia Harrington, a New Era organizing volunteer, delivered them to City Council.

One of the biggest points of agreement among landlords in support and in opposition was the basis for the energy evaluations. There are two primary choices. One choice would involve an energy auditor, who would evaluate each property with specialized equipment at the expense of the property owner, which is the current method used for newly constructed housing; it would be comprehensive and reliable, but expensive. The other choice would use a point system, assigning a checklist of energy-saving upgrades to a point scale that would add up the the unit's total energy grade; it would save time and allow flexibility, but some argued that the one-size-fits-all approach would favor certain properties.

For instance, several property owners complained that adding wall insulation to their old, brick properties would require expensive demolition and vacating tenants. Stanley Peterson, who owns two rental properties in Boulder, detailing his worst case scenario in terms of costs, said he supports the regulation in principle but took issue with the point system. The dollar value of additions didn't seem to line up with the points - installing solar panels would cost him $13,000, he said, but would only give him 34 of the required 100 points. "The smart meters are more efficient and cheaper," he pointed out, "but I would need 200 of them," he said to laughs.

Horton advocated for more time and more research. She argued that the seven properties used as case studies by the city were not nearly comprehensive enough to create a model for the whole city. She also argued there was no third party verification to the study, and that even programs intended to help landlords with the transition (such as on-the-spot energy auditors Two Techs and a Truck) were unknowledgable about small details, such as the difference between single- and multi-family properties.

"A building is only as good as the tenants," Horton added. "There is no magic bullet for the 100 points."

Landlords heartily agreed with this point. Why should they add a new, expensive heating system if tenants would still leave their windows open, their lights on, and their heat at full blast? Renting as a two-way street became a hearty talking point. Kathryn Schweiger pointed out that smaller details, such as which lightbulbs are used, are the tenant's decision anyway and out of the landlord's control.

However, Boulder resident James Darden approached the council with his latest energy bill. He said he had been charged around $1,200 dollars in the last two months: "Rent, I can afford; utilities, I cannot," he said, stating he was powerless to hold his landlord accountable for the amount of energy his unit consumed.

Whatever solution that seemed so certain to the council at the beginning of the session seemed to disappear by 10:30, when the public hearing closed. The council voted to hold further discussion for their next meeting on June 1st, and moved on to the next item on the agenda without so much as a closing remark. There is clearly a lot to wrap one's head around on this issue, and though it was frustrating to not receive any kind of reaction from out city's leaders, it was also reassuring that they recognized there were many details to work out.