Making Building Decarbonization Work for LA Renters

A new UCLA report recommends policies to green existing buildings in a way that protects and supports residential tenants.

The City of Los Angeles at night
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Los Angeles’ ambitious “Green New Deal” calls for, among other things, eliminating or offsetting building emissions and reducing building energy use by 44%, both by 2050. This is an impressive and ambitious target, and while the city has begun restricting some emissions from new buildings, it is still figuring out how to tackle the far more difficult task of reducing the emissions and energy use of existing buildings.

The latest policy brief from the Emmett Institute examines the potential impacts such a policy could have on LA’s residential tenants. (The report is inspired by the work of Environmental Law Clinic partner Strategic Actions for a Just Economy.) People who rent their homes deserve special consideration in the city’s building-decarbonization policy for several reasons: The majority of LA households rent; renters are disproportionately members of groups that have been poorly treated by past housing and environmental policy, including Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, and low-income people; and renters have less control than homeowners over their housing situation and home environment, since key aspects of their lives, from what appliances they can use to whether they can remain in their homes, are often determined by their landlords.

We don’t yet know what the city’s building-decarbonization policy will look like, but any program that meets the Green New Deal targets will have potentially immense impacts—good or bad—on LA tenants. For one, major work of the kind that could achieve highly efficient and carbon-neutral buildings can trigger additional rent increases under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which covers most apartments in the city. Those same retrofits could even lead to displacement: either by enabling formal evictions (landlords use government-mandated retrofits to kick out tenants, as seen recently in the Barrington Plaza debacle) or by giving landlords cover to pressure tenants to leave through misinformation or “harassment by construction.” And landlords will have incentive to raise rent or replace tenants with higher-paying ones, because of both the up-front costs of decarbonization work and the increased market value that the newly renovated homes will have.

At the same time, building decarbonization represents an immense opportunity to improve tenants’ wellbeing. Achieving the city’s targets will likely require replacing climate-warming gas appliances with high-efficiency electric ones; improving heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation systems to reduce energy use; and potentially adding on-site electricity generation like rooftop solar. All of these measures can be beneficial to tenants that live in the buildings, if done right. The report highlights a few of these “co-benefits,” though there are many more: Appliance switching and increased ventilation can improve indoor air quality, protecting tenant’s health, while energy efficiency and distributed generation can reduce or even eliminate tenants’ energy bills.

Securing these co-benefits—and protecting against potential rent increases and evictions—is only possible with a carefully crafted building-decarbonization program. To this end, the report makes eight specific policy recommendations, intended to be applicable to any path the city may take to achieving the Green New Deal goals:

  • Prevent the costs of decarbonization retrofits from being passed on to rent-stabilized tenants;
  • ­Eliminate provisions in the Los Angeles Municipal Code that allow landlords to evict tenants in order to renovate their properties;
  • ­Strengthen enforcement and oversight of existing tenant protections;
  • Make any subsidies to landlords conditional on agreements not to raise rents or evict their tenants;
  • Prioritize retrofits that improve tenants’ health and quality of life, such as appliance electrification and ventilation improvements;
  • ­Ensure that tenants benefit from energy savings from energy-efficiency measures and on-site solar (or other distributed generation);
  • ­Create an oversight body with meaningful tenant representation and real power to guide the City’s decarbonization policy; and
  • ­Promote housing models that can better protect tenants, such as publicly owned housing, deeply affordable deed-restricted housing, and community land trusts.

What the city’s existing-building decarbonization program will ultimately look like is still unclear. The city is reportedly expected to have rules in place for decarbonizing existing buildings at some point this year, but details are sparse. LA’s Climate Emergency Management Office held a series of workshops in partnership with key local community organizations and leaders, culminating in a report released last year. The city’s Department of Buildings and Safety (DBS) has said it is working on a plan, and has been instructed by the City Council to report on that plan and its impact on low-income residents, but DBS doesn’t appear to have released any public information yet. Hopefully, that plan will take into consideration the impacts on LA renters and adopt policies like those recommended in this report.

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “Making Building Decarbonization Work for LA Renters”

  1. Effects of the entire “decarbonization” scam obviously hit renters and lower income owners hardest. The REALITY OF eviction and homelessness are a step away for 99% of renters.
    This doesn’t even address the additional expense of “all electric” apartments– forced use of cheap, dangerous, inefficient electric stoves, water heaters, heat, and other major appliances that cost more on every month’s utility bills, which are NOT provided with monthly rent in most instances.
    Abandon your program dictated by the one percent of affluent ivory tower and Sierra Club, UNLESS you/they LEGISLATE TOTAL rent control with NO increases AT THE STATE LEVEL, along with solid anti-displacement protection. Those of us in the lower 98% DON’T WANT OR NEED your displacement program and your all-electric appliances accompanied by triple utility bills.
    Do it in your own homes and leave the rest of us alone!

    1. Thanks for reading–I definitely share your concern about the potential impact of decarbonization on renters, especially low-income renters. I also agree with your proposed solution: stronger rent control that covers more people, closing the loopholes in eviction protection, and improving enforcement. Eviction, displacement, and rent burden all need to be core considerations for climate policy.

      That said, building decarbonization can help tenants, if it’s done right. Contemporary electric appliances (heat pumps and electric stoves) are more efficient than gas appliances, in addition to being safer. And the retrofits–many of which are the same kind of “weatherization” retrofits that have been helping cut energy burdens for decades–will save money for tenants. In other words, the right decarbonization policy could be a really good thing for tenants, especially low-income and energy-burdened tenants.

      (Some sources–
      The Department of Energy finds that its weatherization program reduces energy bills by $437/yr, on average:;
      The federal ENERGY STAR program finds that gas stoves are about 35% efficient (in terms of the amount of energy that gets from the stove to the pot/pan/whatever), compared to 75-80% for traditional electric stoves and 85% for induction stoves:;
      The ACEEE finds that heat pumps more efficient than gas furnaces in California (in terms of the total amount of energy used each year), even assuming the electricity they use is generated by gas:

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About Daniel

Daniel Carpenter-Gold (he/him/his) was a fellow at the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in 2021-2023 and co-taught the Enviro…

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About Daniel

Daniel Carpenter-Gold (he/him/his) was a fellow at the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in 2021-2023 and co-taught the Enviro…

READ more