A Green-Electricity Bait and Switch?
You don’t often associate electricity reforms with eviction traps, but the green economy brings out the ingenious in everyone.In the past month, the state has reprimanded four Manhattan landlords for using a program intended to save electricity as a means of evicting tenants.
Here’s the game, as outlined in a complaint from the Urban Justice Center and a ruling from the state’s utility watchdog. Landlords in big low-income apartment complexes who have always included electric charges in apartment leases set up submeters for their tenants. These should let tenants see how much energy they’re using, adjust, and end up saving money as well as carbon emissions. Instead, the landlords rig the game. They prevent tenants from getting efficient appliances, or they double-bill by leaving the old electricity expense in the rent bill. When a tenant can’t cover the double bill or do anything about the wasteful refrigerator, she misses a month’s rent and the landlord evicts her so that a new tenant can come in (perhaps at higher rates).
The state has started cracking down on landlords for abusing a popular energy-efficiency measure, and the Justice Center’s lawsuit may widen the circle of shame. (Disclosure: I’ve been sympathetic to the Justice Center in past reporting, and my daughter is friendly with the children of the group’s lead lawyer.)
The cases, which the state announced September 17, address a state law prohibiting eviction of tenants on electricity-related charges. But they involve a practice that should work well for everyone, and that too many people may reflexively resist for seeming confusing.
Submetering in apartments should promote economic growth and energy savings, as tenants who can see how much energy they’re using should be able to waste less and pay less. It’s not so intricate. But the recent decisions fault landlords for installing electric meters inside apartments without letting tenants buy better appliances or protecting them from overcharges. In fact, a current complaint says a landlord in the Bronx used the submeters to issue two sets of bills to some tenants and then try to evict tenants for not paying the charges.
This reveals how little we’ve contented ourselves with knowing about the electricity we use – and how carefully we should tread as we move toward a system of “a la carte” electricity in apartment, office and student buildings. Submetering, once it’s on the straight and narrow, can help tenants across income levels control their energy use. But we won’t escape the dark ages until it’s possible for most people to pay for only the energy they choose to use, rather than the energy they have to use.
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