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Cities Hold the Keys to Greener, More Efficient Homes

Decisive Policies Are Critical for Achieving Climate Goals in Residential Buildings

Our homes may be a source of safety, comfort, and stability—but they also represent a considerable slice of our country’s carbon emissions (19 percent, according to the latest estimate from the US Energy Information Administration). Addressing this piece of our energy system is essential to achieving our climate goals. Perhaps more important, improving the efficiency of our homes is a powerful tool for addressing the energy burden that disproportionately affects our low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities. Fortunately, cities around the United States are collaborating and taking aggressive action.

Policy Challenges

Several hurdles stand in the way of decisive policies addressing residential energy efficiency:

  • A residential market mostly based on individual owners makes scaling change particularly challenging
  • Local context (including climate, architectural style, and constituent priorities) is especially influential for residential buildings, elevating the importance of a customized approach
  • Smaller buildings (with smaller budgets) can make it more difficult to achieve cost-effective project results with a customized approach
  • Poorly designed policies risk exacerbating housing affordability issues or slowing economic growth

Yet the public is increasingly demanding action from our governing bodies. Polling performed by Stanford University researchers recently found that 68 percent of Americans believe our government should do more to address climate issues. A study from the Demand Institute identified energy efficiency as the number one unmet need in residential housing, beating out other categories such as updated kitchens and finishes, privacy, and even safety.

Cities Taking the Lead

More and more cities across the country are embracing climate and sustainability goals and are looking for solutions to build a more efficient economy, more affordable and equitable housing stock, and a more secure energy future. These cities are increasingly relying on collaborative efforts such as the American Cities Climate Challenge, the Net Zero Energy Coalition, or the City Energy Project to address the daunting challenge of achieving aggressive goals in residential housing and other hard-to-reach market segments. These collaborative opportunities ensure that cities can share lessons learned, navigate common policy pitfalls, and build on each other’s successes.

Leading cities across the country are already providing examples of what is possible. Santa Monica, California, implemented a zero-energy performance code for single-family homes in 2017, over a year before the California Public Utilities Commission’s decision to enforce this level of performance statewide. The city of Boulder, Colorado, adopted the country’s first efficiency standard for rental housing, inspiring others to follow suit. In February, Minneapolis passed a set of three major energy disclosure policies addressing multifamily buildings, rentals, and newly listed homes.

These cities and more are driving toward aggressive climate goals with targeted action. How can we ensure these successes continue to be replicated and scaled?

Tackling Energy Issues with Collaborative Cohorts

At Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), we’re working to amplify these pioneering city initiatives by bringing together collaborative cohorts of city policymakers focused on high-priority energy issues. In 2018, we offered two such working groups that provided city policymakers with the tools, resources, and collaborative problem-solving environment necessary to hone and enact the policies highlighted in two recent RMI reports:

  • Cohort #1: Policies for Zero-Energy (Ready) New Homes utilized the analysis and insights provided in our Economics of Zero-Energy Homes report to inform aggressive new construction policies. These policies stand to optimize energy use at the beginning of a building’s lifecycle, minimizing cost and maximizing long-term impact, while reducing the total cost of homeownership and bolstering a new labor market—both potential boons to LMI communities.
  • Cohort #2: Minimum Efficiency Standards for Rentals helped cities work toward implementing the rental licensing policy outlined in our Better Rentals, Better City These policies are particularly important for LMI communities because they stand to enforce a minimum level of performance and comfort in homes that have often been neglected due to the tenant-owner split incentive.

The cohorts served 33 cities representing over 18 million constituents across the United States. These cities are now using each other’s experiences and ideas to inform aggressive action, including:

  • Washington, D.C., is currently working toward adopting one of the country’s most comprehensive residential zero-energy policies, having recently secured funding for pilot-project incentives and convened over 100 local stakeholders to guide program design.
  • Ithaca, New York, plans to bring legislation for zero-energy new homes to its city council later this year.
  • Policymakers in Bozeman, Montana, are using the cold climate addendum to RMI’s Economics of Zero-Energy Homes report (which was produced based on demand from our cohort members) to validate the viability of stretch codes and other net-zero-energy-ready policies.
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan, and other cities are leading the charge to launch new rental efficiency standards.
  • Somerville, Massachusetts, is exploring a rental licensing program to enable efficiency programs.

These cities are building upon leading-edge examples and stand as precursors to a countrywide shift toward adopting two sets of policies that can ensure that homes everywhere are more efficient, more comfortable, and more affordable for residents.

This year, in partnership with Earth Advantage, RMI is offering cities free technical support to help them develop home energy labeling and disclosure policies. Cities are increasingly looking toward implementing such policies in order to provide the actionable information necessary to drive consumer action and unlock economic development in the residential sector. This spring, RMI will do an initial “deep dive” into home energy labeling policies that that will highlight the leading examples of cities such as Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; Berkeley, California; and Minneapolis and synthesize the best practices and necessary steps for implementation. After using that information to mobilize resources and stakeholders in their cities, participants will collaborate with each other through a six-month series of problem-solving workshops that harness the experience of expert practitioners and incorporate a toolkit of resources built specifically to support policy implementation.

Cities across the country are stepping up with impressive leadership in the face of the federal government’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. It is largely through their leadership that we can continue to move toward our climate goals while ensuring safe and healthy homes for all.

To learn more about the outcomes of RMI’s past working groups or to collaborate with other cities to implement home energy labeling programs, or if you have ideas for the focus of future sessions, please reach out to Jacob Corvidae at