How Does a "Generation of Renters" Save Energy?

For rent photo
CC BY 2.0. Number Six (bill lapp)

Number Six (bill lapp)/CC BY 2.0

From our guide for renters on how to go green, to coverage of a sustainable living group aimed squarely at renters, we've covered a fair few stories on greener living and greener housing for folks who can't, or don't want to, own their own home.

Given that every few weeks we see another article about a "generation of renters", it's important to keep an eye on what the shifting patterns of home ownership mean for our built environment and the energy and resources that our buildings consume.

But exactly what the consequences of this shift are remain unclear.

For many consumer items, renting makes more green sense than buying - take car clubs, for instance. In general, it's been argued that product service systems (PPS) are a means to green consumption and decrease disposable goods. When someone owns a laundromat, a car club, or a clothing rental company, they have an incentive to look after their products—and source longer lasting products—than if they were to simply sell you their stuff.

But does the same hold true for home rentals? Home buying is not usually talked about as a consumer purchase, but rather as an investment. Homeowners have always been encouraged to invest in their properties and improve their performance through adding insulation, weatherizing etc. Meanwhile landlords, while having some incentive to maintain the basic structure of their buildings, have traditionally had little to no motivation to go above and beyond the basics.

There have been efforts in some countries to penalize landlords for dangerously cold properties, or to incentivize energy efficiency improvememts, but these tend to be the exception, not the rule.

So how do we move forward in a housing market where renting is becoming more common? Part of the answer will come from the market itself. As renting becomes more of a mainstream choice, including for folks who would traditionally have been seen as likely home buyers, it seems fair to assume that competition will lead to improved offerings. There may be ways to encourage energy labeling or other forms of consumer education, to help increase that competition. And encouraging lease agreements where utilities are included may incentivize landlords to invest in their buildings. (Though this would be at the expense of encouraging conservation by tenants.)

Ultimately, we're unlikely to know exactly what the shifting housing market means for our energy consumption just yet. What we do know is that the future is unlikely to look like the past. So we'd do well to start asking questions now.