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Tenant power: Be a force for better rental housing

Updated: Mar 16

Being a tenant can feel powerless. Your housing options are what they are. In places with high demand for rentals, you’ve got to take what you can get, and sometimes it’s a closet or a place that’s unlikely to, say, be featured in Dwell magazine.


We don’t think it has to be like that.

Part of the problem is an imbalance of information. With better information, tenants can compare rentals, and ask for better options. Another part of the problem is that the “split incentive” problem deters efficiency investments in rental properties (this means that if tenants pay the utility bills, landlords don’t have an incentive to invest in efficiency; if landlords pay the utility bills, tenants have no incentive to conserve). With better information, people see the consequences of split incentives and can encourage improvements in other ways - like by renting elsewhere or petitioning the landlord to address issues.

RentLab launched recently in Dubuque Iowa. Between recent cold, snowy weather in this midwestern river town, and a jump in natural gas prices, tenants are really feeling the chill – both in the form of inefficient, drafty properties and big, big utility bills. The good news is that Dubuque includes basic energy efficiency data in its rental inspections, so tenants know how their rental compares. IMAGINE knowing before you sign a lease that the furnace is outdated and inefficient, or that the lights are all energy-sucking incandescent light bulbs, or that the attic has no insulation. Or being able to get immediate clarity on why you might be seeing huge heating bills, just by looking at the info at

Cold snowy street in Dubuque - energy efficiency is critical to prevent high utility bills and reduce resource use.
The path to your ridiculously high heating bill. Credit: Tony Webster, Portland, OR CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Having the info doesn’t automatically translate into improvements, but it gives you better resources for talking to your landlord. Some basic stats from Dubuque:

  • Lighting is one of the easiest upgrades you can do, and pays for itself within 2-3 years. 88% of Dubuque rental units have higher-efficiency, low-cost light bulbs; 12% have a few, or are all incandescent. Do you live in one of the units that is still using 19th century lightbulb technology?

  • The biggest efficiency concern in Dubuque’s rental sector is the lack of insulation in single-family homes and duplexes: a full 45% of these properties have inadequate insulation. Heating and cooling makes up more than half of energy use in typical homes, and heating a home without insulation wastes huge amounts of money and resources – not to mention it’s incredibly hard to keep an uninsulated home comfortable. If you can, look in your attic – if there are fewer than 12 inches of insulation, make this a priority for discussion.

  • If you live in a house without insulation, there’s a high chance your home also scores poorly in terms of furnace and water heater age, lighting, and windows. This means that the consequences of inefficiency are concentrated on specific households. Is yours one of these? Take a look at, then ask your landlord what improvements they might already have planned, or what might be possible in the near future.

Even having facts doesn’t necessarily make it easy to talk to your landlord. Check out our guidelines for starting these conversations, or reach out to your local housing department (Dubuque’s is here - you can even request a rental assessment if yours isn’t yet included on the RentLab site). You can also contact local housing or sustainability advocacy organizations, and check with your utility to ask if there are energy assessments or other programs accessible to renters.

The point is, tenants often enter into leases with just a portion of the information they need to make smart decisions about housing, and they also have little leverage to make changes once they’ve moved in. But there are tools that can help, and the more tenants ask good questions and use these tools, the better it is for tenants everywhere.

The good news is that there are plenty of landlords out there who have already invested in making their properties efficient - the RentLab platform will help showcase those properties, and make it easier for tenants to find them.

And don't forget - there are lots of ways to reduce energy use that rely on tenant behavior (like keeping your thermostat at 68 or below in the winter)! See the “for renters” section here.

Have a success story about reducing utility bills in your rental home? Or working with your landlord? Or experience living in an inefficient property? Tell us!

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