With Ithaca-based landlord and activist Ruth Yarrow, Kristinko Mato ’24 discusses a recently installed heat pump, subsidized through a new Sustainable Finger Lakes pilot program, at Yarrow’s property on Nov. 3.

Undergrad helps Ithaca homes switch to clean energy

Low- to moderate-income renters have been largely left out of clean-energy incentive programs – now an applied economics and management major is working with an Ithaca-based nonprofit to implement clean-energy subsidies for their landlords, with numerous benefits for tenants.

Kristinko Mato ’24, an intern with Sustainable Finger Lakes’ (SFLX) and tenant engagement coordinator for the Clean Energy and Equity Pilot, is facilitating the installation of highly efficient, air source heat pumps in 100 units rented by low- and moderate-income tenants. The heat pumps will reduce heating costs and overall emissions, improve indoor air quality and provide cooling for tenants, while offering landlords a substantial property investment and upgrade – funded in large part by a $585,000 grant from NYSERDA’s (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) Innovative Market Strategies Program.

Cornell impacting New York State

“This is really a win-win-win,” said Mato, a student in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, part of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. “The tenants are benefiting from increased comfort, the landlords are getting the property upgrade, the contractors are getting work – everyone’s happy. In addition to all that, increasing the resilience of our community from the impacts of climate change is central to our mission. Witnessing this and playing a part has been extremely gratifying.”

Historically, landlords have been slow to make clean-energy upgrades, Mato said, because of the high cost and the fact that many of the benefits only go to tenants. But subsidizing the upgrades creates a significant financial incentive, making the heat pump installation more affordable for landlords.

The pilot program focuses on properties with one to four rental units that are currently heated with fossil fuels and that house tenants with low and moderate incomes – a category representing 24% of all low-income housing in New York state. Often, the properties are older homes that have been divided into apartments, Mato said, with local landlords managing just a few properties; several landlords in the pilot are single and retired, renting out part of their homes to make ends meet. Tenants are lower-income individuals and families, including elderly residents and students, who make less than 80% of the area median income.

SFLX is partnering with Ithaca-based Performance Systems Development to track and report the effect of the pilot on both costs and emissions, with the hope that the program could eventually spread statewide.

“This sector represents millions of low-income people who typically have very little power in the relationship,” said SFLX President Gay Nicholson, M.S. ’83, Ph.D. ’91. “If we can show landlords that by stacking incentives, we can make the switch to a heat pump feasible economically, that will stabilize the energy bills for the property and provide much greater comfort for the occupants, especially with summer air conditioning. This is especially critical for elderly tenants as we see more heat waves.”

As part of the agreement, rent will be frozen for two years, and the units must be guaranteed for low- to moderate-income tenants for those two years. Landlords can tap additional NYSERDA subsidies to bring apartments up to a minimum standard for insulation and air sealing before the heat pumps are installed.

SFLX is running another pilot to install 50 heat pumps in mobile homes, which are notoriously inefficient and house many elderly and vulnerable low-income residents.

Additional funds for both pilots are available through SFLX’s Finger Lakes Climate Fund, a local carbon offset program Nicholson established in 2010. Anyone can calculate their emissions and compensate for their carbon use with a voluntary donation that goes toward upgrades for low- to moderate-income families. Since 2010, the fund has provided 89 grants – almost $152,000, to families in 13 counties of the Finger Lakes region – that have kept an estimated 8,500 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

“It’s very important to recognize that it’s not so much about a personal footprint but a community footprint – and to think about how we can help each other,” Mato said. “Everyone in Ithaca and across the country can contribute to this effort today by offsetting their emissions with the Climate Fund.”

Mato has been working with tenants to ensure they qualify for the pilot and then guiding them through paperwork and requirements. Tenants must participate in a workshop on best practices in home energy conservation, fill out pre- and post-installation surveys and accommodate contractors.

“The cooperation of the tenants is absolutely critical to the process,” Mato said. “But they’ve been very willing. There’s been a sense of shared community responsibility that has been very good to see and be a part of, and I just love that I can directly see the impact. I know the houses, I know where the heat pumps are going, I know the stories. The tenants have my phone number and can contact me anytime.”

Mato’s work with SFLX has also given him an appreciation for grassroots work.

“The large packages that are passed at the state or federal level are essential, but they’re also only a pile of money in some ways,” Mato said. “It takes a lot of nonprofits here in Ithaca and beyond that come up with extremely creative ways to serve a target audience and engage that audience as much as possible. We are harnessing community power and community passion. It’s been life-changing.”

Nicholson said the benefit is mutual. “We’re very lucky to have young people here that can bring their energy and skillsets,” she said. “Tompkins County is a statewide leader on climate action and energy retrofitting, and a lot of things have been done here first. It’s a great opportunity for the students to be in a place that’s not asleep at the wheel.”

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