Low Rents, Low Energy: Revitalizing Public Housing

Urban Green’s annual conference, Modern All Over Again, addressed issues ranging from our aging energy grid to preserving Lincoln Center. The day’s first panel, “Revitalizing Public Housing,” focused on affordable housing and featured Bomee Jung (New York City Housing Authority) and Mark Elton (Sustainable by Design). Hailing from England, Elton first made his American audience envious with a picture of Downton Abbey. This is how the English all live, right? Wrong. Mark pointed out that 18% of English residences are social housing—not mansions. Jung echoed Elton’s statistic, pointing out that one in 14 New Yorkers live in public housing. According to both speakers, affordable housing on both sides of the Atlantic is aging and in need of renovation. The challenge, they said, is how to tackle public housing’s capital needs on limited budgets, while maximizing sustainability—one of the panel’s major themes.

Moderator Laurie Kerr (Urban Green Council) did a great job of giving the discussion some historical perspective. Two-thirds of the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA’s) stock dates from before 1969, and the number of NYCHA residents would qualify as the state’s second largest city. England is in much the same situation: much of their housing stock was rebuilt after the Second World War.

Bomee Jung at Urban Green Conference

As rents continue to rise in New York, NYCHA holds an increasing share of the affordable apartments. Jung said the authority accounts for 50% of apartments renting for less than $800, and 75% of those lower than $500. Most of the buildings are more than half a century old, and their systems reflect this; over 90% of heating is provided by steam. While a more efficient hot water heating system would mean major operational savings, funding to install it is limited—Jung pointed out NYCHA has both operational and capital shortfalls of a billion dollars. Congressional appropriations, or lack thereof, are a major cause. While comprehensive retrofits have been estimated in the neighborhood of $145 per square foot, the average project budget is $50 per square foot.

Scale alone means that simple fixes like efficient water fixtures and exterior lighting upgrades make an impact, but they only allow the buildings to reach the energy use profile of a typical multifamily. Currently the bulk of the capital plan is focused on building envelopes. Jung pointed to the authority’s “NextGeneration NYCHA” plan for addressing sustainability within budgetary constraints. New roofs will reduce leaks, a major source of mold and indoor environmental quality issues FEMA funding will allow for the installation of elevated boilers in buildings.

Mark Elton at Urban Green Conference

George Bernard Shaw famously lamented that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. In the case of affordable housing, those common words are budget cuts. Elton named several funding programs that have come and gone in the UK. The dearth of funding is inversely matched by the scale of the work to be done, with 20 million homes needing retrofits in some of Europe’s oldest housing stock.

Further complicating things, renovations are disruptive to tenants. But Elton presented an instructive case study that got around that problem by addressing the building’s envelope. Wilmcote House is a concrete high rise with porches that act as thermal bridges, and old electric heating. Rather than gutting the systems, an exoskeleton was added using EnerPhit principals of superinsulation. Enclosing exterior porches gave residents additional living space while significantly reducing tenant energy bills. At $130 per square foot, the work wasn’t cheap—but it was less expensive than rebuilding, and had an expected payback of 15 years. In terms of cost, Elton stressed the motivation for doing the job right the first time. These fixes will be locked in for the next several decades—especially important in England, given the nationwide commitment to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050.

About the authors

Matthew Shurtleff
Matthew Shurtleff is a guest writer for Urban Green and was a member of our Monthly Programs Committee.