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What are the most promising opportunities to promote greater residential energy efficiency? Is there a role for the federal government?

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By Amy Anthony

The development and preservation of affordable, multifamily housing provides a promising opportunity to promote greater residential energy efficiency. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that single-family households use twice as much energy as those in buildings with five or more housing units. As a developer and owner of affordable multifamily properties, POAH recognizes that while our multifamily buildings have a head start on single-family homes when it comes to energy use, we must also actively pursue energy and water conservation across our portfolio.

In December, HUD and the Department of Energy expanded the Obama administration’s Better Buildings Challenge to multifamily housing. POAH joined 49 other multifamily property owners in committing to reducing our portfolio’s energy use by at least 20% by 2020. In working to achieve this goal, we have invested in the systematic collection of utility data from our buildings, a critical step in targeting and recognizing efficiency opportunities, and we have worked to leverage local, state, federal, and utility resources to augment our investments in reducing the environmental footprint of our properties.

We see the federal government playing a significant role through policy initiatives, like the Better Buildings Challenge, designed to encourage investment in energy efficiency. At a macro level, a carbon tax or cap and trade approach would make efficiency projects more economically viable and support the growth of renewable energy. Until and unless we begin to see congressional momentum for this approach, federal agencies must rely on leveraging their policies and programs to reach efficiency goals.

HUD has been working on several new initiatives to encourage efficiency and is testing promising approaches that address the split incentive problem that often arises between building owners and residents. HUD is evaluating approaches to streamline the process for owners to get approval for the installation of proven energy and water conservation measures. They are also considering new incentives for owners and property management to gather utility data and benchmark their properties’ efficiency.

The Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program has traditionally been difficult for multifamily property owners to access. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding helped move the program in this direction, but more work needs to be done to remove the barriers to multifamily participation, and more funding needs to be made available for this cost-effective program.

Single-family residential has long been a focus of energy efficiency efforts, but there has been a notable shift in recent years towards multifamily. Financial resources from utility companies, foundations, and the government have helped spur energy efficiency improvements in multifamily properties and support a growing infrastructure of technical experts steeped in multifamily energy issues. To continue this positive trend, building owners must continue to drive the demand for these resources through the recognition of energy efficiency as a central tenet of responsible asset management. We need to serve as an example to policymakers and provide leadership that demonstrates the value of energy efficiency.

Amy Anthony is president and chief executive officer of Preservation of Affordable Housing

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