By Mike Gunning, Community Legal Aid Attorney

Ohio tenants living in poverty (and the advocates who serve them) might not put much thought toward the energy efficiency of their homes. When money is tight, worries understandably revolve around meeting the most basic of needs.

But with some out-of-the-box thinking and community mobilization, an energy efficiency rebate program coming to our state soon could make a big impact on both the housing quality and financial stability of households who rent. And the impact wouldn’t stop there.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 created the new Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates (previously known as the High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Act or HEEHRA) as part of a larger effort to encourage the use of clean energy and mitigate climate change. According to Rewiring America, this program “provides point-of-sale consumer rebates to enable low- and moderate-income households across America to electrify their homes.” The program allows various rebates to low (80% of median income) and moderate (80% - 150% of median income) households and to owners of multifamily buildings, where 50% or more of the residents are low income. This could look like the installation of a heat pump to power HVAC systems, water heaters, or clothes dryers; the purchase of a new electric stove or cooktop; upgraded electrical writing; or weatherization upgrades. There are maximum rebate amounts in place based on each category, but for most low-income households these rebates will cover most or all eligible expenses. For example, a household living at 80% of median income can get a 100% rebate of $8,000 on an HVAC heat pump, $1,750 on an HVAC water heater, and $840 on an electric stove or cooktop. These amounts are consistent with prices for units available at our local home improvement stores.

If low-income renters and their landlords were empowered to take advantage of benefits like these en masse, imagine the benefits…

Positive impact to Ohio tenant households could be broad. Homes would be safer and more comfortable, water warmer, air quality higher, and utility bills savings could be $40 per month or more. Furthermore, tenants could potentially leverage their participation in the rebate program to their benefit with their landlords. This could look like working together to access the rebate and making updates in exchange for a decrease in rent. Or dreaming even bigger, it could be a tenant union catalyzing management to retrofit an entire multi-unit facility.  Advocates often find themselves helping tenants negotiate with landlords - information and impetus to access these rebates could be a valuable bargaining tool.

In many ways, the benefits are the same for our landlords as they are for our tenants. In the world of legal aid, we tend to focus on the landlords who are bad actors. But in reality, there are many who have nothing but good intentions in the operation of their units and the care of their tenants. When tenants have habitable spaces with reliable new utilities, landlords win too - they’ve met their legal obligations to maintain safe and habitable properties, there are fewer disputes, and they’ve done the right thing. Further, over time, there could be obvious cost-saving benefits to having new efficient utilities in place for their properties.

Beyond these groups we so often work with at Community Legal Aid - benefits could continue! Homeowners tap into many of the same benefits as tenants and landlords alike as they both live in and have the responsibility to upkeep their homes. But perhaps most importantly, our communities as a whole could benefit. These purchases made from local contractors will provide an exponential boost to the local economy.  Aside from the enormous economic boost to the local economy, our cities become a safer, better place to live.  And don’t forget the core benefits to Mother Earth!

If we are to maximize the potential benefits of this rebate program, planning and action are required now. Ohio has applied for funds that will be administered in the form of rebates at the state level - but the status of this application and the process to access funds is unclear. Community leaders must be assertive in communicating the importance of these benefits to the state and keeping abreast of the program’s evolution. They should be aggressive in fighting for these benefits for their residents. Around $250 million is earmarked for Ohio for all Inflation Reduction Act program arms. This is a lot of money, but everyone will be asking for a piece of the pie. Communities that are organized and ready to apply for the benefits will receive the majority of the benefits. All parties - landlords and landlord associations, tenants and tenant unions, contractors, advocates, and government officials - can create processes for educating applicants so that our local neighborhoods can fully take advantage of the benefits this program provides. Together we must lay the groundwork to spring into action by sharing information, envisioning creative programming, and pledging to work together.