Updated: May 21, 2020
Most people think of cities for the very visible services they provide – trash pickup, sidewalks and road repair, water service, law enforcement. But cities are on the front lines in so many other ways, especially in their role in long-term planning and preparedness. That means creating cities with well-maintained, efficient infrastructure; attainable housing; safe streets for everyone; healthy, happy environments, economies, and people: cities that are sustainable and resilient.
In the US, 550 cities and 22 states have adopted climate action plans (according to climateactiontracker.org), and an increasing number are adopting ambitious goals to either reduce carbon emissions by 80% or to become completely carbon neutral by 2050. They cannot achieve these goals without addressing rental housing, which typically makes up 50-80% of the housing in the cities where we work.
Cities also struggle in a very real way with affordability, which can make it difficult for middle-class households and essential workers like teachers, service workers, facilities staff, and police officers to live in the communities they serve.
This is where RentLab comes in. We want cities and their partners to be able to make rental housing better. People feel the pain of inefficient, expensive rentals individually when they get surprised by a high utility bill. But cities feel the pain of those rental properties collectively, in the form of housing-vulnerable or homeless residents, excessive dollars spent on out-of-town utilities instead of on the local economy, huge energy and waste footprints, children unable to achieve in school because their house is not comfortable enough to study in, excessive burdens on community infrastructure.
To counteract these effects, cities need levers to nudge rental housing in the right direction. It’s a tough sector to change for reasons we’ve outlined in previous posts, but we’re working with city partners to experiment with a few different approaches.
Unlike other rental portals, we’re not focused on renting properties – we’re focused on tracking information over time about the real costs and impacts of rental housing. When tenants can see how rentals compare, they’ll wonder why gas bills in their house are $400 a month when the house next door only pays $100. Landlords will want to know why one of their properties routinely uses 5 times more water per person than any of their other properties.
When people can easily see what’s “normal,” they’re able to plan ahead, and they’re able to demand better. This is why we created the Smart Living Dashboard, which gives visibility to the many aspects of rental properties that most people don't think about, from the utility bills to the availability of recycling, and eventually to the features like trees and raingardens that are nice to have but also make places more livable and affordable when they reduce cooling costs or help prevent flooding. We want our dashboard to be like the EPA’s fuel efficiency label, and for people to expect to see it before they sign a lease.
This is our property dashboard:
To populate both our public, map-based community websites and our dashboard, we rely on many types of public and partner data. Where we’re missing information (and most cities are – more on that in a later post), we ask landlords, tenants, and utility partners to help us fill in the gaps. And then we combine everything together to make reports and maps and models and all kinds of things to help communities understand where their high-needs areas, their high-impact areas, their other priority areas might be.
Do we know what’s going to work? Not entirely, not yet.
But we know that the costs of housing are a critical part of household budgets. We know that rental housing is a critical part of community environmental and economic footprints. And we know that without better tools, we can’t start making progress on rental housing, and our city partners aren’t going to be able to get where they want to go.