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By John Dodge
The Olympian

About one-third of the Thurston County population lives in a rental home, duplex, apartment or mobile home. Some of those units are drafty, moldy energy hogs that generate big utility bills and very little comfort.

Finding ways to improve energy efficiency and healthy living conditions in the rental housing stock of the region is both a great opportunity and a great challenge.

If renter-occupied housing were aggressively outfitted with available energy conservation measures — everything from insulation to energy-saving windows, heating systems and appliances — the benefits would be many. Families would spend less of their limited funds on electricity and natural gas. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions from residential units — about 50 percent of the county total — would decline. The housing would be healthier to live in and last longer, too.

Rental units are the low-hanging fruit in the world of energy conservation. While homeowners who occupy their homes are inclined to take advantage of utility rebate and incentive programs, rental properties often are left out in the cold.

About 85 energy experts, landlords, renters, government officials and other concerned citizens gathered at the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services office Thursday afternoon to explore some market-based incentives that would entice landlords to make energy investments in their rental properties. Key sponsors of the symposium were the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild and Thurston Energy, which is the energy conservation arm of the Thurston County Economic Development Council.

The conversation was candid. Nothing’s going to change if rental property owners can’t earn a return on investments, several landlords said. There were, however, examples of landlords and property managers who see the value in making energy-efficiency investments.

Real estate agent Shelley Westall, a native Olympian, said her family owns two rental homes, and she recalls what it was like to be a renter as a young adult.

“We try to partner with our renters and address concerns immediately,” she said. “It’s always a little scary to invest in these energy-saving systems, but there are a lot of rebates and incentives out there.”

Andrew Barkis, co-owner of Thurston County-based Hometown Property Management, said his firm manages more than 1,000 single-family homes. The firm offers to conduct home energy audits for the homeowners, who may or may not approve the audit and follow through with the recommended energy efficiency improvements.

“It’s hard to justify the investment if there’s a 25-year pay back,” Barkis noted.

Local and national trends suggest that the percent of people renting is growing, either by choice or necessity. And many of the new wave of renters are eager to find energy-efficient housing.

“I’d be willing to pay more for energy-efficient, healthy housing,” commented Jeffrey Thomas, a house painter by trade.

Thomas was among a number of people who recommended creation of an online database that profiles rental units based in part on an energy-efficiency rating. That idea appeared to have traction.

“Renters need to be able to identify healthy homes at the point of searching for a place to live,” Thurston Energy program director Ramsey Zimmerman said.

The website could show video testimonials from homeowners, landlords and others who have invested in energy-saving projects to encourage others to follow suit, Olympia Planning Commission member Roger Horn recommended.

Programs need to be developed to educate landlords about the benefits of energy retrofits to their properties, others agreed. For instance, energy-saving rentals rent quicker and renters tends to stay longer, reducing income gaps in occupancy, said Steve Abercrombie, president of the ecobuilding guild’s South Sound chapter.

Graeme Sackrison, a member of the Thurston County Action Team suggested renters should receive information on do-it-yourself projects and energy conservation resources when they move into a rental.

Most of the suggestions were baby steps. But at least the conversation is headed in the right direction.

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