By Bailey LeFever | December 18, 2017
Chase Jones moved into his new apartment in the heat of the summer this August.
But he couldn’t run the air conditioner.
“When I turned on the air conditioner,” Jones said, “all the air was going right back out.”
There was a wide opening between the doorjamb and the back door of Jones’ unit.
“When it stormed and rained it came through there,” Jones said.
Worse, losing so much cool air had his utility bill running about $160 a month; higher than he’d budgeted for, he said.
“I realized what was happening and I stopped using it,” said Jones, whose apartment is a small one-bedroom across the street from Lincoln Middle School in east Gainesville. He tried to get his landlord to fix the gap, along with several other maintenance issues. For example, the four-burner stove had only one working burner. The waterline from the sink leaked. He finally turned to Gainesville’s Code Enforcement Division.
Jones’s story reflects an expensive reality for Gainesville’s low-income residents, who use relatively low amounts of energy every month, yet pay the highest percentage of their income for utilities. Data analysis and local energy experts say part of the problem is poorly maintained rental properties. Code Enforcement Division violation records for the past five years show a strong statistical relationship between these kinds of problems and the city’s lowest-value properties.
In other words, rental-housing headaches such as holes, gaping windows and doors and untrimmed trees that could knock out power in a storm or cause other damage are most severe for the very residents who can least afford to deal with them.
Jones’s landlord’s registered properties had 18 code violations in that five-year period, one of the highest numbers of violations by one owner, according to code-enforcement records.
Several renters who’ve had to turn to the city’s Code Enforcement Division for help say they have real trouble even finding their landlords. Shawn Washington, who rents a one-bedroom apartment near the Gainesville Airport, said he hardly ever sees his. (Several landlords with violations cited in the code-enforcement database either did not return phone calls – or, as Washington experienced, could not be found.)
“You never really see him unless you absolutely, positively have to,” Washington said.
When a circuit blew in his apartment, causing half the space to lose power, he figured that was an “absolutely, positively” have-to-see-the-landlord situation. Instead, he came back from a week’s vacation to find the problem had not been fixed.
So, Washington said, he went into the wall and rewired the system himself. In addition to the various electrical problems with the unit, the apartment came without air-conditioning. Washington also installed a wall unit himself, with money out of his own pocket. But his utility bills are so high he hardly uses it.
“In the summertime I rarely use it,” Washington said, “only if absolutely necessary.”
High air-conditioning costs are a major obstacle for many Florida renters, even forcing some like Washington to forgo using it in the summer months, said Anne Ray, Florida Data Clearinghouse Manager at the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.
While Florida has advantages over other states with newer housing stock and a lack of brutal winters, the summer months can be challenging for low-income residents living in inefficient homes, and/or without air-conditioning, Ray said.
“There’s really not much point in having a really affordable housing unit and then paying hundreds of dollars a month for electricity and gas and water,” she said.
For as many residents who call the Code Enforcement Division about housing problems, social-service officials who work with low-income residents say most who have complaints never lodge them because they fear losing an inexpensive place to live.
And while holes and gaps like the one letting the air conditioning flow out of Chase Jone’s apartment constitute code violations, inefficiency, itself, does not. Over the years, advocates for the poor and for energy conservation, as well as some Gainesville Regional Utilities staffers, have proposed amending the city’s Housing Code standards to include minimum attic insulation and other efficiency upgrades. The proposals have gone nowhere.
Meanwhile retrofit programs available to low-income homeowners that help reduce energy and water use are scant for renters, especially in apartments.
In fall 2016, space was the main allure of Carla Harper’s move from a cramped apartment complex in southwest Gainesville to nearby Harbor Cove complex.
“When I went and looked at the place, I was in awe because of the simple fact that the space blew my mind away.”
Harper, a single mom with three children, was enticed to sign on for the four-bedroom, three-bath apartment even after she was alerted that there would be a “small” surcharge with the rent to pay for water. The leasing agent explained the charge would be no more than $50 a month, Harper said she was assured.
“I said, ‘oh that’s not too bad’,” given the seeming good deal of $890 a month for a four-bedroom lease, Harper said.
But as it turned out, her water fee was much higher than promised. It started at $97 a month, then skyrocketed to more than $200. The bundled cost of her rent and water bill amounted to more than $1,200 – and pushed her total expenses including electricity to $1,600. “Now this is a problem for me,” Harper said.
“For five months’ straight they sent me a (water) bill for $210,” Harper said. “When I looked at it, they weren’t even reading the meter. They were just charging me.”
“I timed my kids on three-minute baths so we’re not running the water long.”
Harper said her water bill kept rising despite using neither her clothes washer nor her dishwasher for fear of the charges. “I timed my kids on three-minute baths, so we’re not running the water long,” she said.
Harper said she had to take a second job to pay her bills, which in turn forced her to hire childcare. “I was stuck in a lifestyle I didn’t want to live,” she said.
“I pretty much think that’s a rip off,” she said. “ ’Cause I know good and well I’m not using this much water.
Harbor Cove referred questions to GRU. The utility’s records show that it bills Harbor Cove for water that is metered on each building. Harbor Cove, in turn, bills the tenants in individual apartments. The GRU records indicate that the buildings’ overall water use is high, and that the $50-range bills Harper says she was promised would have been unlikely for tenants during 2016 when she moved in.
Many of the programs to help low-income residents retrofit homes to lower water and energy consumption apply only to owners, leaving behind renters trying to reach basic levels of efficiency, according to the housing studies center’s Ray.
“There’s not that same incentive when the tenant pays the bill,” Ray said.
So-called “split incentive” programs are one potential solution to help owners and tenants collaborate on a just outcome.
“It takes innovative financial mechanisms to fix these problems,” Ray said. Another key is education. Families often end up in homes where they would have to update many appliances to lower bills. The Gainesville software company Acceleration.net developed a search engine,ToolsforTenants.com, in conjunction with the city and GRU that lets apartment hunters compare utility costs for specific properties before they sign a lease. But it’s not something enough people think about when they’re on the market for a home.
On the federal level, too, much of available funding is only available to owners, said Raissa Johnson of the National Housing Trust. Apartment renters especially don’t often have access to retrofits and other programs.
“Utilities are usually geared toward single-family and homeowners and if you’re a multi-family renter you may be unable to enroll in these programs,” Johnson said.
In Florida, at least two pilot projects have shown dramatic savings of energy, money and landlords’ labor costs with efficiency upgrades in apartments.
But landlords insist such upgrades should be voluntary. Efficiency is simply not a landlord’s responsibility, said Jim Konish, a Gainesville landlord, attorney and frequent critic of the city-owned utility.
Konish acknowledges that many renters in Gainesville are unable to afford their utility bills. There are kids that come home from school to no refrigeration and no lights, he said: “It’s killing people.”
“High GRU bills added to the rent put poor people in the position of having lights on, or being able to buy food and medicine,” Konish said.
Konish said landlords who keep dwellings as inexpensive as possible have a role to play in providing affordable housing. That often means older buildings with older appliances. The more the landlord puts in, the more he’s got to charge for rent.
Renter Chase Jones is not so sure the cheap rent is worth the hassle. His landlord finally fixed his problems, but only after the Code Enforcement Division got involved. His utility bills are running around $120, closer to what he thought they should be.
Jones walks along the outside wall of his home, showing the water line that now runs out from the kitchen. His Chihuahuas, Spike Jr. and Chloe, zip in and out the door, dancing around his feet.
Inside, he shows off his repaired sink, holding nothing back.
“He’s very slow, that’s all I can say,” Jones said of his landlord. “Very slow, very slow.”
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