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Company using data to analyze sustainability in Flagstaff’s rental sector
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Company using data to analyze sustainability in Flagstaff’s rental sector

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RentLabs

RentLabs, a company partnered with the city of Flagstaff, is building a network of publicly-accessible data on rental properties in the city. This interactive map is viewable on the RentLabs website.

For sustainability-minded residents, green home improvements can be an enticing investment -- whether that's installing solar roof panels or bettering attic insulation to battle the elements.

But when it comes to rental units, sustainable factors such as a home’s energy efficiency can be unclear to tenants, and there is often less incentive to invest in property improvements, according to a company gathering data on Flagstaff’s rental sector.

The company, RentLab, is looking to combat the issue by making rental features more transparent in the city. The hope is that by making property improvements publicly accessible on the RentLab website, it will lead to a rental sector in Flagstaff that is both more efficient and cost-effective.

The RentLab website says the service is like “Yelp for rental properties, but without the nasty reviews.”

On Thursday, after being delayed by the pandemic, RentLab partnered with the Flagstaff Sustainability Program to kick off a volunteer effort to gather more information from tenants and landlords on the rental units in the city.

The partnership comes as the City of Flagstaff has looked to take an increasingly bold approach to climate action, most recently approving a goal of attaining carbon neutrality in the city by 2030.

Achieving that goal will necessitate a multi-faceted approach from the city, according to its Carbon Neutrality Plan. One approach is to make improvements to the energy consumption in Flagstaff’s housing sector.

But incentivizing those improvements can get tricky when it comes to rental units, Flagstaff sustainability director Ramone Alatorre said.

“We have more renters than we have homeowners in Flagstaff,” Alatorre said. “Typically landlords are not the ones paying the bills, so there is not always that incentive to make an investment into something like sealing air leaks.”

Property investments, like those allowing homes to be heated more efficiently, could save renters hundreds of dollars a year on utilities while also reducing CO2 emissions. But right now, there is not a platform informing tenants of those factors before signing a lease, RentLab CEO Jacqui Bauer said.

“Flagstaff is a community that has pretty sparse information about their rental sector,” Bauer said. “We don’t really have a lot of information on the sustainability basics of those properties.”

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To assist with gathering information, RentLab is looking for volunteers to crowdsource data on rental units, both as tenants themselves, or by going door-to-door. Tenants and landlords can also submit information on the company’s website.

The company combines publicly available information with the information that is reported by the community. Bauer says most of their data is based on public information, but crowdsourced data is used to fill in the gaps.

“We recognize the different qualities of data,” Bauer said. “If it comes from a solid source like a utility bill, we treat that differently than someone reporting the cost of their average electric bill, for example.”

Bauer said the goal is to have both tenants and landlords buy into the process, allowing for a more complete set of information. That information is then made publicly available to prospective tenants in Flagstaff through an interactive map on the RentLab website.

Eventually, Bauer said the map will assign a “smart score” based on factors such as a property’s accessibility and utility costs.

“We’re trying to get better information out there and help people actually see what the real costs of rental properties are,” Bauer said.

But local landlords are not as keen on the idea. Jacqueline Kellogg, West USA Realty Flagstaff, was particularly concerned with the program’s reliance on information provided by tenants.

“It has the potential to single out properties,” Kellogg said. “If you ask the tenants for that information, they are going to give you a laundry list of everything the landlord has ever done wrong.”

When asked about potential negative impacts, Bauer said a focus of RentLab is to celebrate investments that landlords are making to properties.

“We talked to a landlord a few weeks ago that upgraded all of the lighting on his property,” Bauer said. “We are trying to give him good press because we want more landlords to make those types of upgrades to their property.”

Beyond creating transparency between renters and property owners, Bauer said RentLab offers data analysis the city can utilize to target new programs addressing affordability and sustainability in the rental sector.

The City of Flagstaff pays RentLab an annual subscription fee of about $1300 to provide data analysis.

Those interested in learning more about the program can visit the RentLab Flagstaff page at: www.rentlab.org/flagstaff-az

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