Commentary: Don’t leave low-income New Yorkers out of energy efficiency

Apartment buildings and other multifamily housing in New York State provide homes to more than 1.7 million low-income households, comprising more than one-fifth of the state’s total homes. Yet most of these New Yorkers reside in the oldest, least efficient housing in the state – a problem that Gov. Andrew Cuomo could help address this month, when he announces a new statewide energy efficiency initiative on Earth Day.

Pamela Rivera is the coordinator of the Energy Efficiency for All New York campaign.

The governor has an opportunity to roll out an ambitious proposal to meet the state’s clean energy and climate goals. New Yorkers most in need, and the multi-family rental housing where they live, must be a critical focus for the initiative to be successful.

Recent news reports about the New York City Housing Authority provided examples of issues found in low-income rental housing throughout the state, such as inadequate heat, mold and other problems that impact residents’ health and safety. Energy efficiency upgrades would improve indoor air quality, reducing asthma and other respiratory illnesses that increase healthcare costs and result in work and school absences.

Addressing the energy waste in these buildings would also produce benefits for all New Yorkers, because smarter energy use reduces the burning of fossil fuels, cutting air pollution, and helps our electric grid meet high demand on those hot summer days.

Unfortunately, New York has fallen behind other states in energy efficiency investments and savings. Our state slipped in the widely recognized ACEEE State Energy Efficiency Scorecard from third place in 2013 to a tie for seventh in 2017, and even further – to 13th – for public and utility efficiency programs. This means New Yorkers are using more energy, and paying more for it, than they need to.

The Energy Efficiency for All New York coalition (EEFA NY), which works to ensure all New Yorkers are a part of our state’s efforts for a clean and affordable energy future, strongly supports a statewide goal for energy efficiency that will put New York back at the top – and help address the needs of our neediest residents.

Energy efficiency programs are a crucial investment for keeping New York housing affordable. For owners and operators of multifamily buildings, energy can make up a substantial portion of operation and maintenance costs – costs that are often passed on to residents. According to data compiled by Inside Energy, energy costs for low-income households can consume upwards of 30 percent of household income, putting a significant burden on already tight budgets for food, transportation and rent. Rising operating costs mean the owners of these aging buildings often let them fall into disrepair unless they can increase rents, reducing the availability of safe and affordable housing. And if the owner does recover costs through increased rents, the housing becomes unaffordable, worsening the housing crisis.

In early 2016, the Public Service Commission convened the Clean Energy Advisory Council to recommend options for energy efficiency in New York. The Commission’s smart recommendations for energy efficiency in low-income housing include:

  • incentives for a “whole building” approach;
  • mechanisms to help owners of multiple buildings provide efficiency upgrades to multiple properties;
  • providing building staff with the experience, training and credentials necessary to maintain installed energy efficiency upgrades;
  • increased incentives for buildings with a larger proportion of low-income residents; and
  • alternate sources of financing to address health, safety and structural issues.

These recommendations provide a roadmap that Governor Cuomo can follow to ensure that New York’s upcoming initiative provides Energy Efficiency For All – cutting energy bills, making housing more affordable, and making New York a national leader in reducing pollution. We’ll be watching the Governor’s Earth Day announcement for signs of hope for all New Yorkers.

Commentary submitted by the members of New York Energy Efficiency for All, a coalition comprised of affordable housing and energy efficiency advocates, including the Association for Energy Affordability; Enterprise; Green & Healthy Homes Initiative; LISC NYC; Natural Resources Defense Council; Pace Energy and Climate Center; WeAct for Environmental Justice; and New York Working Families. Learn more at www.nyeefa.org 

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