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The challenge of high utility bills in student housing

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

This post was written by guest blogger Lyanda Dudley, an engineering student at the University of Michigan

This year, as a graduate student living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is the first time I truly understood the double-edged (triple-edged? Quadruple-edged?) sword that is energy efficiency in rental housing. My passion for environmental sustainability is what first attracted me to the energy efficiency space, but it is the deeper-rooted complexity of economics, vertical integration, and competing development priorities that makes this such an interesting and crucial area to focus on.

We all know that finding affordable rental housing in any city is already a challenge, let alone finding a place where “affordable” includes more than just the price of rent. In planning my move to Michigan, I was very excited to learn that housing prices in Ann Arbor are considerably cheaper than in Central New York. I live in a 7-person house about two blocks south of campus. My bedroom and shared living space is triple the size of my entire senior-year apartment and costs nearly 30% less. But what I failed to consider before renting were all of the additional costs associated with housing, more specifically, the utility cost of a larger space with fewer energy conservation measures and under the jurisdiction of a more expensive (and more polluting) utility provider.

This year, for an average winter month when all seven of us were going to classes during the day, our utilities cost $550, excluding water. Luckily COVID-19 did not hit Michigan until mid-March, otherwise with all of us home 24/7, this could have easily surpassed $600 or $650. Now, I know what you are thinking—these are college students who are likely not very conscious or knowledgeable about how much energy they are consuming. In our case, I beg to differ. We are conscious of turning off lights when we leave a room, our thermostat is set no higher than 64ºF in the winter, showers are quick since six of us share one bathroom, and honestly, half of my housemates don’t cook.

The second time we received a billing statement this high, we contacted all the other houses on our street and for a similar number of people and square footage, they all pay under $400 per month. Additionally, one of my housemate’s significant other lives in a neighboring township with the same utilities provider and is paying $95 per winter month for their entire four-bedroom house. Having twice as many people should not quintuple the bill… unless the house is extremely energy inefficient.

Once we recognized how inefficient our rental was, we asked our landlord for an energy audit, twice. Unsurprisingly, both times we were denied. Here is where I really began to see what is known as the tenant-landlord “split-incentives” problem, which you can read more about here. Even though we could not only prove to our landlord that the bill was inordinately high for the region but also that it was not specifically our behavior dictating the cost, we couldn’t get any changes to be made—not even just clarity from an energy audit.

Speaking as a student, we need to develop new ways to educate, assist, and advocate for renters regarding the full cost of housing because these costs can make or break a student’s ability to obtain a higher education degree. While my living situation has opened my eyes to some of the issues that impact housing affordability, I acknowledge that I am far from being the most impacted. I come from a financial background where my family could afford to help me pay for housing if I were to fall short. I am also privileged to have had a paid internship the previous summer enabling me to build up enough savings to only work one job during the school year. I know peers working multiple jobs, going to school full-time, and considering taking on more work because unpredictably high utility bills while living paycheck-to-paycheck leaves absolutely no room for error. Another colleague of mine commutes to school from 45 minutes away because he cannot afford even the cheapest, most rundown rental in Ann Arbor. Even though both of these students are able to still attend university full-time, their learning is undoubtedly compromised. Yet these folks are still only part of the picture, as I know others are pursuing college part-time or in alternating semesters because they have to work full-time to cover the costs.

While we may not be able to control university tuition or the overarching economics of the housing market, we do have the ability to start leveling the playing field by promoting transparency on the full cost of rental housing and developing solutions that can help reduce utility bills that benefit both the tenant and the landlord.

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