Burlington, Vermont, city hall.
Burlington City Hall. Credit: Onasill / Creative Commons

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Correction: A Vermont Gas Systems spokesperson estimated weatherization costs about $6,000 to $8,000 per project, which could include more than one unit. An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the figure as the cost per unit.

Burlington, Vermont, rental property owners will be required to weatherize their apartment buildings under a forthcoming city ordinance.

The proposal received unanimous support at its first reading this month and is expected to be adopted Monday by the City Council despite some concerns about potential rent hikes and a shortage of contractors to complete the work.

“This has to be thoughtfully planned out over time,” said Chris Burns, director of energy services at the Burlington Electric Department municipal utility. “If we just say, okay, 7,000 [rental units] that are roughly three-plexes need to comply in a year, that would be a fool’s errand.” (Update: This quote has been edited for clarity.)

The ordinance will require Burlington rental property owners to weatherize apartments and spaces like attics and basements. Buildings will have to use less than 50,000 British thermal units per conditioned square foot for space heating.

Officials roughly estimate as many as half of Burlington’s rental properties currently use more than that. The ordinance makes some exceptions — for example, some buildings that have already completed weatherization projects will be exempt.

These rules will make weatherization a necessity similar to a smoke detector, Burns said, acknowledging that weatherization is much more complex than installing a device. His team has been heavily involved in drafting the ordinance.

The city since 1997 has had minimum efficiency requirements in place for rental properties when they’re sold, but few are sold each year, according to the electric department. “It walked you into what we in the energy efficiency world call the split incentive paradigm,” Burns said: Tenants foot the bills, and building owners have tenants readily available, making weatherization less appealing for owners.

About two-thirds of the utility’s customers are renters, and the ordinance could help lower their bills by as much as 25%. At the same time, officials are trying to take caution to prevent upgrades from leading to rent hikes in a city with high housing demand and only modest supply.

Once the ordinance is adopted, officials will have to implement a timeline for the work. One of the biggest concerns is that Burlington — and Vermont as a whole — lack contractors eligible to do this work. Without a certified contractor, property owners won’t be able to get rebates from Vermont Gas Systems, which covers 75% of the costs for many apartment weatherization projects.

One way to make sure there are enough contractors available is to roll out projects slowly while also taking steps to expand the workforce, Burns said.

Small carpentry companies should be encouraged to diversify their businesses and begin offering weatherization services, he said. At the same time, officials are discussing training and incentive programs. As the pandemic eases, getting more people into these jobs could help get people back to work and boost the economy.

City Council Member Ali Dieng thinks the city should make a big investment in training community members in weatherization. “We need to find programs where young people, New Americans, people can learn this job and get certified in order to help the city,” he said.

He’d like to see $200,000 set aside in next year’s budget to secure teachers for an education program. The program could focus on helping New Americans, including immigrants, refugees and asylees, as well as other groups of people like formerly incarcerated individuals, get certified to offer weatherization services.

Another option, Dieng said, is for the city to cover costs for the certification process for people who agree to become city employees.

It will be important for weatherization funding to stay stable going forward, said Tiana Smith, senior director of strategy and chief of staff at Vermont Gas Systems. Consistent funding at the state or federal level will signal a strong market for potential contractors. “We want to make sure that these are jobs that will stick around for a little while,” Smith said.

Cost will be the other key piece as building owners begin projects. The ordinance places a $2,500 cap on the cost per unit, excluding incentives, that property owners have to pay. That amount will be adjusted each year for inflation. Once a property owner is directed to complete weatherization work, they can request an extension for work they have to do beyond the $2,500. At that point, they’ll be given up to three years to complete it, with no cost cap.

This piece requires particularly close attention, because it could end up having an effect on rent prices. Property owners contacted by the Energy News Network either didn’t respond or turned down requests for comment. Officials said they may get some pushback, especially from small property owners, but in the end this work could save on maintenance costs and make buildings more durable.

To determine the cost cap, Burlington Electric officials used data from Vermont Gas Systems that covered weatherization projects over the last three years and compared that with the electric utility’s own data for weatherization projects involving oil and propane heaters. (Burlington Electric pays incentives for those weatherization projects.) After comparing weatherization costs, officials concluded that $2,500 should be viable for property owners to pay to complete their projects, with most not needing an extension, Burns said. He acknowledged the cap could be raised if it turns out projects cost more.

Smith said weatherization often cost about $6,000 to $8,000 per project, which could include more than one unit. Having the current cap could help building owners take time to complete projects, she said, but the utility usually encourages building owners to complete their work all at once. That way they can be sure to get incentives that may not be available down the line. In addition to rebates, Vermont Gas Systems offers options like zero-percent financing for projects to make them more feasible.

City Council Member Jack Hanson doesn’t think the policy will lead to higher rents. He believes property owners are already charging what the market can bear. Plus, he said, tenants could save significantly on their energy bills, so they’ll reap the benefits of these weatherization projects. “Right now, the cost of not doing it is completely borne by the renter,” he said.

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.