Landlords part of LIHEAP equation

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Petersburg man took a strong stand last week on government-funded insulation of houses available for rent here and elsewhere by making the following qualified statements.

If the landlord has got the money to insulate the house, why are we spending federal money to help "deadbeat" landlords? We all know the efficiency of the federal government.

As it turns out, administrators of a federal weatherization program can't discriminate between those who rent and those in owner-occupied homes, and the purpose is to help folks who, without insulation, are needlessly spending more than they would on gas, electricity, propane or other fuels to heat their homes this winter.

The system isn't perfect, and President Obama has asked: Why wouldn't we want to do something that would make federal assistance go further and help more people? And, according to Congressman Bart Gordon, federal spending on weatherization creates jobs for people who install the insulation.

This week, the Lewisburg Electric System Board of Directors realized another situation that raises eyebrows about the weatherization program.

If a landlord gets his tenants' places improved with the stimulus money, they ought not go up on the rent.

That's what Lewisburg Councilman Phil Sanders, chairman of the electric service board told me Tuesday afternoon at City Hall.

It's unclear what can be done about it, but Richard Turner, general manager of the power system, says he will be consulting with the utility's attorney, Walter Bussart about whether the city can pass a resolution that might attempt to control the rent charged at home benefiting from weatherization.

Local officials don't have an indication that landlords here have raised rent after houses were insulated, but utility officials talk among themselves at conferences and Turner says, "We have some reason to believe that it happened when TVA was doing home insulation - that when TVA got through, then the homeowner raised the rent on the renter."

Perhaps a landlord might argue that renters' total costs go down because they've saved on power and they could therefore afford to pay more, but what cold-hearted person could sleep well at night with such an approach?

Weatherization has been around for decades. One preacher remembers Ronald Reagan endorsing the program as a way to help people save money for a long time. It might even keep someone renting from the same landlord instead of moving from a drafty house.

Obviously what's aggravating Turner, his board and the Petersburg man is that when the landlord gives the government permission to insulate a building, the landlord isn't actually doing anything, or investing anything to improve the building.

"If you could see some of the houses they rent, it's unreal," Turner said.

While on the police news beat in Griffin, Ga., during 1974, officers showed me wood houses with dirt floors. There were bare light bulbs hanging from wires attached to the A-frame beams. Does such still exist in America?

What is real in the United States is a well-known warning in our nation's capitol. In a nutshell, it's this: Don't make me do something about that. Bad actors in some industries have hurt their own customers and as a result, there have been federal regulations imposed because some people couldn't conduct business with common decency for their fellow man.

Lewisburg City Council may or may not have authority to control rent, even though it's a fact of life in some cities. New York is an example.

But already, at least one government panel here is looking out for residents and its leaders are exploring the tools they have already.

"We can play a big part because we have the history of the utility use," Turner said. The places where insulation is to be installed will also be known, he said, because "We have to have a letter from the renter and with that we can send a letter to whomever would pay for the storm doors or windows and who insulates the house."

It's an indirect approach toward regulation that should be unnecessary.

We're making no local accusations. Examples of times gone by with the TVA program were said to be elsewhere.

We prefer to believe Marshall County folk know that taking care of one another means taking care of your self.