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Tuesday, November 21, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

Energy efficiency rebates not impacting rent 

The Austin Energy MultiFamily Rebate Program was launched in 1991, but only since 2013 has it been the focus of a data tracking initiative with the aim of investigating the possible effects of participation on rental prices.

Liz Jambor, a data analytics and business intelligence manager at Austin Energy, came to the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee meeting on Nov. 13 to convey that Austin Energy is confident that there is no correlation between landlords who take advantage of the rebate program and rising rents. According to the data Austin Energy has collected over the last four years, changes to rent are driven by the market.

Jambor specified that it was important to determine whether the rebate program was incentivizing rent increases because many of the multifamily residences taking advantage of this program are in areas with low-income families and there was concern that property owners would recoup improvement costs through increased rents.

As of mid-2017, 42 properties encompassing 7,944 units had received energy efficiency rebates. Properties that received these rebates were located in seven out of the 10 ZIP codes with the highest percentage of households at or below the poverty line. Three of the properties were listed with the Austin Tenants’ Council as low-income.

Typically, property owners must pay 20 percent of the fees associated with energy efficiency upgrades while the city pays the remaining 80 percent. The exception to this is a pilot program where properties that are occupied by majority low-income families are eligible to have the charges associated with the upgrades covered at 100 percent.

Council Member Delia Garza expressed her concern with the term “low-income,” asking if the student populations around the University of Texas were considered as such because they were technically unemployed. However, according to Austin Energy’s map that tracks recipients of the rebate, it does not appear to be the case.

The question remains, however, if the improvements that the rebates incentivize are sufficiently decreasing energy bills.

According to Austin Energy, on average, the savings per family benefiting from the refurbished, energy-efficient improvements is $100 a year. Council Member Alison Alter did not see this as a significant reduction when compared to the cost of implementing the improvements.

The fact that the reduction in energy bills is perceived as minor is consequential when considered in conjunction with the fact that energy-efficient building improvements are often a free if not majority-compensated service that the city provides.

To help guarantee that this program is worth continuing, Council Member Ann Kitchen noted that there should be some assurances on the part of the recipients as to the efficacy of this program. No one, however, suggested a method for gathering this information.

Debbie Kimberly, vice president of customer energy solutions at Austin Energy, explained that the savings are beneficial. Due to its confidence in the efficacy of this program, Austin Energy is actively trying to target properties on the Austin Tenants’ Council’s list since families living there can benefit significantly from the quality-of-life improvements that are realized through this rebate program. In addition to the savings, “it also improves the health and comfort of the residents,” she said.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee: The Austin City Council committee on Austin Energy was created in May 2013 to provide oversight of the city's electric utility. It's creation was marked by political maneuvering that ultimately resulted in a committee comprised of every member of the Austin City Council.

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