When we talk about RentLab, we spend lots of time talking about data. And almost always, when we talk about data, we talk about how we don’t have enough of it.
Most cities have good data on property addresses, ownership, year built, square footage, and other basics about a building. A smaller set of cities has information about number of bedrooms and bathrooms, heating and cooling equipment – a little bit more detail about building basics. But the biggest hurdle in developing a full picture of a property is the lack of utility data and a good picture of how efficient a property is. Both of these types of data are really hard to get.
In a world th
at seems awash in data, this just seems weird. So why is that? Here’s everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about getting access to utility and efficiency data.
Why not just get data from utilities?
Utilities have lots and lots of data, but are deeply reluctant to share it because of privacy concerns or other reasons. We’ve explored many ways to work with utilities, but it’s often pretty difficult. There are a few exceptions:
Some utilities share “whole-building aggregated data”, which allows them to share consolidated data from many tenants in larger buildings. This provides great insights on comparative use among certain types of buildings. It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a great start.
Some cities have energy disclosure ordinances, which publicize the whole-building aggregated data mentioned above in varying levels of detail.
Municipally owned utilities will sometimes make use and cost data public in some form. But this is pretty unusual.
Most utilities will share average cost estimates for individual addresses as a courtesy to customers or potential customers, but are not willing to share that data in bulk.
Okay. So just have landlords share their data.
Sometimes, this is possible. There are landlords who keep the utilities in their own names and pass the costs on to tenants, and some landlords have been willing to share that information. But often, landlords don’t know what the utility costs are in their own buildings because tenants pay the utility bills.
In either case, even if they do know, they don’t have any idea how those costs compare to other, similar buildings in their community. They might also know what types of investments have been made in building efficiency, but may not want to share what they’ve done or haven’t done.
Cities could just require that the data be shared, couldn’t they?
As noted above, some cities have required that data be shared publicly for certain types of buildings – usually larger commercial, industrial, and/or institutional buildings (e.g. over 25,000 square feet). But most cities haven’t adopted these policies (sometimes because of state prohibits them from doing so), and such policies only provide a picture of a subset of buildings.
Some cities also have good data on what types of upgrades have been made to buildings, but this information is often not detailed enough to act on. That means cities still don’t have enough info to figure out how to prioritize buildings for improvement.
So then what?
Basically, that leaves tenants, who have access to great data but only for their own households and only once they’ve moved in. They generally don’t know in advance how the utility costs in a given rental compare to others in the community, and that means they aren’t in a good position to advocate for their own interest in more efficient rentals and lower utility bills.
That means there's a big, gaping hole in our understanding of rental performance, affordability, and impact that has real consequences for cities and for people. We’ve talked about those consequences elsewhere – take a look at this post if you want to know more.
The upshot of all of this is that we have to get creative if we want to inject better information into the rental housing market. Until there are better and more comprehensive solutions (like data-sharing agreements with utilities and easy ways for tenants and landlords to share information), we have to piece together a picture as best we can using lots of different sources: public data, energy disclosure, partnerships, and crowdsourcing.
We're playing the long game here, and ultimately, we believe the solutions are out there.