I recently read a New York Times article about Gen Z tenants who couldn’t afford their apartments. Surprisingly, the article never mentioned the high cost of energy bills as one of the reasons behind our generation’s struggle with housing affordability. In a different article on the perils of gas stoves, the author similarly never talked about how the already high cost of renting is a barrier to upgrading our kitchens.

When I first heard the term “building decarbonization,” I was told it was a technical issue reserved for environmental scientists and engineers, whereas the term “housing policy” was for social scientists. This made me wonder –why aren’t we able to connect the dots? Tenants don’t just need affordable housing; we also need affordable clean energy.

Connecting the Dots: Legacies of discrimination compounded by modern crises

Gen Z is battling at the intersection of the most pressing issues our society faces today: climate change, housing affordability, and racial equity. All of these are deeply interconnected.

Today, 83% of Gen Z who live alone are renters. Low-income, Black, and Latinx Californians are more likely to be renters, and are also more likely to be housing cost-burdened – spending above 30% of their income on rent – compared to other renters. This is because decades of redlining and economic exclusion robbed communities of color the wealth-building opportunities that were granted to white communities. BIPOC members of Gen Z continue to shoulder disproportionate economic burdens as a result, compounding barriers to accessing safe and sustainable housing. 

More than any other generation, we also care deeply about our environment. I was raised with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future and the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests; climate justice advocacy is buried deep within our generation’s DNA. 23% of Gen Z renters responded that energy-efficient appliances were an important apartment amenity–likely for their potential to help save on energy bills and contribute to healthier, safer homes. To put that into perspective, this is higher than Gen Z’s preference for a pool, a green space, or even an extra bedroom in their apartment.

Yet, the housing crisis is putting our climate commitments to the test. Gen Z is entering an impossibly competitive rental housing market while also dealing with the rising cost of living – these obstacles combine in a perfect storm, making it more difficult for Gen Z to access affordable housing. Rent prices are at an all time high, even as we are forced to fight tooth and nail just to have flex rooms (single bedrooms partitioned by temporary walls to create multiple rooms). But are we willing to pay even more for climate-conscious affordable housing? Can we?

As our generation straddles competing needs for affordable housing and environmental sustainability against a backdrop of systemic racism, we must take an integrated approach to housing policy and the energy transition. No one should not have to choose between having a place to live and having a planet to live on. We need housing policy and climate policy to work in tandem and not against each other.

A New Energy Landscape

As a Gen Z student living in the Bay Area, I find the energy policy landscape in California fascinating and critical. I moved to California for college two years ago from a rural, conservative town in Western Pennsylvania where the only energy issue that was broached during my childhood was fracking. Climate change was a term reserved for the most progressive and radical residents of our town. When I moved to California, I saw a different future for energy policy as one of the only states to commit to 100% clean energy by 2045. In California, it felt like no one was ashamed to name what was so clearly happening to our planet, and instead was committed to confronting the problem head-on.

Just as Gen Z strives for climate-conscious housing, California has made enormous efforts to codify and implement building electrification measures which make up roughly a quarter of the state’s emissions. As a tenant, measures like transitioning to more energy efficient, non-fossil fuel appliances, mean improved indoor air quality, energy resiliency, and lower utility bills. If done correctly, California can simultaneously reduce emissions, address historic inequities that lead to people of color living in less energy efficient homes, and overall improve the quality of life for households. But embedding equity into state policy is a rigorous practice, and as it stands, the state is not living up to its commitment to equity for all when it comes to energy and housing.

Soaring Rents, Mounting Bills

For Gen Z, the issue of housing cost-burden is compounded by generational rent inflation. From July 2021 to July 2022, Baby Boomers saw their median rent payments rise only 3% whereas Gen Z saw their rent payments skyrocket 16% during the same time period. As a result, Gen Z tenants can spend up to 85% of their income on rent. As homes in California receive energy upgrades, Gen Z tenants fear that landlords will choose to recoup the costs of electrification upgrades by increasing tenants’ rents. Our generation must advocate for affordability restrictions on properties receiving energy upgrades because without rent control or stabilization, considering the already volatile rental landscape in California, we will be priced out of our apartments.

Beyond the affordability of rent, we also have to figure out how we are going to pay our utilities bill. According to the Alameda County Department of Health in a report published by the California Public Utilities Commission, approximately 25% of families in California are energy insecure, or unable to meet basic household energy needs like heating and cooling, and that number is expected to rise as Gen Z floods the rental market. Residential disconnections for nonpayment have steadily increased by nearly 300,000 from 2010 to 2015 alone which make utility bills a significant concern when it comes to tenants being priced out of their units. Utility bills uniquely impact Gen Z, as we are more likely to report having a utility shut off than Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers. If enacted improperly, decarbonization retrofits could exacerbate low-income tenants’ energy burdens. Legislators must prioritize utility bill affordability as part of their housing policy so that energy burdens don’t price our generation out of our apartments. Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, and the energy transition cannot leave these groups behind by forgoing increased rent cap restrictions alongside decarbonization policies.

Harassment, Eviction, and the Road Ahead for Gen Z Renters

Even if we have bill affordability measures, we still need strong tenant protections to prevent tenant displacement. I know as a renter, tenant harassment and the fear of illegal eviction is all-consuming. When my landlord changed the locks to my Downtown Oakland apartment building one Saturday afternoon this summer, I spent two weeks in fear of not having a place to sleep. I canceled plans. I called in sick to work. I checked and checked again to make sure I paid my rent on time. I learned that it didn’t matter if I did everything right; if my landlord didn’t want me in the apartment, they would find a way to force me out. I know I am not alone in this experience as plenty of Gen Z tenants face the same eviction anxiety.

When I think of building decarbonization retrofits, I fear that the looming realities of displacement will intensify. Landlords already exploit electrification upgrades and renovation relocation to displace lower-income tenants and make room for tenants who can pay higher rents. I worry that building decarbonization retrofits and renovations may just be another excuse to displace tenants. Here are just a few policies to watch here in California:

  • Under AB 1482, “replacement or substantial modification” of a unit allows a landlord to evict a tenant without cause. Rent-paying, lease-abiding renters may be legally evicted simply to install energy upgrades. 
  • Some tenants might be offered a “Cash for Keys” agreement, a sum of money by either a landlord or a developer to move out prematurely known to be used as a form of tenant harassment

Other tenants might face an Ellis Act eviction, a common fear among many advocates who speculate that electrification may be a facade for more sinister intentions to convert affordable units into condominiums.

In any case, our generation is right to worry that lackluster tenant protections will create a future of displacement and housing instability in California. As a generation, it is our duty to know our rights as tenants so that we can resist unfair housing practices and engage in legislative advocacy to fight back against policies that allow tenant harassment and no-fault evictions.

What’s Next?

By 2030, Gen Z will make up a plurality of renters. Our generation will be champions in the fight for equitable housing policies that prioritize the stability of all tenants and housing affordability. As a rising generation of renters and climate justice advocates, we will make our voices heard as we face ever-increasing rent prices, eviction rates, and energy bills.