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For Tawanna Davis, winter means hauling out an electric space heater to keep warm when her Bronx building’s heat is insufficient.
Davis, 51, has for two decades been a resident of Twin Parks Tower North West in Fordham Heights, the site of a deadly fire earlier this month that officials have said was sparked by a malfunctioning space heater.
“You get the ice on the inside [of the window] and everything,” Davis told THE CITY. “It be really, really cold in your apartment.”
While some tenants said they’d be shivering without space heaters, others said they had to open their windows in the winter when their units became unbearably warm.
That hot-and-cold situation, which many New York apartment dwellers know all too well, highlights the importance of improving energy efficiency in residential buildings.
And this can be especially true for subsidized, income-restricted complexes — aka “affordable housing” — where improved comfort and safety are immediate benefits beyond slashed greenhouse gas emissions.
But upgrading affordable housing stock at the necessary pace presents logistical and financial challenges, which the administrations of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul need to solve regardless in order to achieve their climate goals.
The Twin Park Towers, built in 1972, are part of the state’s Mitchell-Lama housing program and receive some funding through the federal Section 8 program, which helps subsidize rents for low-income tenants.
“The fact that a relatively new building by New York standards has people living in situations requiring space heaters in order to reach a level of comfort suggests the complexity of this issue,” said Jonathan Meyers, a partner at HR&A Advisors, a firm that consults on real estate strategy and policy in New York and around the country.
“It’s a very stark reminder that there’s a fine line between inefficiency, which most of us can tolerate on a day-to-day basis, and tragedy, which is intolerable,” he added.
People working on the state’s decarbonization strategy, born out of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019, say improvements in building energy efficiency aren’t just ways to mitigate climate change and get off of fossil fuels.
The green push, they say, can also lead to immediate health benefits: Properly insulating windows, for example, can ensure consistent temperatures in all seasons, and installing electric heat pumps can also help cool air. Both are useful to combat deadly extreme heat in the summer and illness-inducing chills in the winter.
“In terms of ever-increasing incidences of extreme-weather events, energy efficiency is going to play a bigger, maybe even life-saving, role,” said Eddie Bautista, director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and part of the group that advises the state’s Climate Action Council.
On Tuesday, as if to further demonstrate the myriad dangers of fossil fuels, an apparent gas explosion rocked a residential building in Longwood, just a few miles south of Twin Parks. The blast killed one person and injured several others, officials said. Adjacent buildings were ruined in the ensuing fire, and the Fire Department is still investigating the exact cause.
Many New York buildings failing at efficiency
The incident showcases the importance of phasing off gas and oil, not only to avoid carbon emissions, but to increase safety, environmental advocates note.
Gov. Kathy Hochul included in her budget plan this week a proposal to ban gas hookups in new buildings across the state by 2027, echoing a city law signed in recent weeks. Environmentalists say the governor’s timeline is not quick enough, and some asked for more funding to electrify existing housing.
“Thousands of New Yorkers are already dying premature deaths every year because of the fossil fuels we’re burning in our homes, and every once in a while, it’s not a slow, premature death thing — your house literally explodes,” said Alex Beauchamp, northeast regional director of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch. “We have to move much faster, not only for new buildings, but for existing ones as well.”
As part of the budget, Hochul also proposed a five-year, $25 billion housing plan that would in part cover efforts to weatherize and electrify New York’s housing stock. Her State of the State proposal earlier in the month cited projects to encourage electric, high-performance heating equipment and renovating buildings to keep temperatures consistent “to reduce the need for space heating and air conditioning,” among other reasons.
For over a decade, building owners in New York City have been required to tally their water and energy consumption data each year and submit the information to the city. Based on that, they get a grade. A 2019 law required landlords to make their efficiency grade public.
Twin Parks, for a second year in a row, earned a D in 2021, the same as about half of all buildings in the Bronx. Citywide, 39% of all buildings earned Ds.
The building, which installed new gas-powered boilers in 2015, according to city records, faces similar challenges to improving its efficiency as many other older buildings. Its residents, like many others in the city, don’t have separate thermostats to control indoor temperatures in their units.
They also don’t have individual electric meters, like many affordable housing buildings, meaning that they are not encouraged to use less power — so a resident can run a space heater all day and even open windows while doing so without thinking about the bill.
A spokesperson for the Twin Parks owners did not respond to requests for comment.
Who pays for efficiency improvements?
Landlords, who foot utility bills in the absence of what’s known as sub-metering, must themselves make improvements to reduce energy usage. Beyond money-saving potential, such capital upgrades focused on efficiency can result in healthier, more comfortable living quarters for residents.
Homes and Community Renewal, a state agency that develops and preserves affordable housing, considers energy efficiency for both new construction and preservation projects, a spokesperson said. It also requires private developers that work with the state to stick to efficient-design guidelines when applying for funding.
The problem lies in how to shore up enough funds to cover the scope of the efficiency-related work that must be done, while balancing the need to create and preserve affordable housing.
Housing dollars from the city, state and federal government are stretched “to the max,” said Lindsay Robbins, a senior advisor for building efficiency and decarbonization for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Many of the investments needed to improve existing subsidized affordable housing are identified when owners seek to refinance, which happens every 15 to 20 years, according to Robbin.
The city and state in 2017 developed an “integrated physical needs assessment” for properties, a tool which considers necessary capital improvements, like a roof replacement, along with an energy efficiency audit, among other measures.
“If we don’t make the most of that opportunity and ensure that building owners have resources and financing they need to really make these properties safe and healthy and efficient and electrified, that building’s probably not going to do diddly-squat for another 15 to 20 years,” Robbins said.
“We need to fundamentally rethink the kinds of public resources that we put into this … because putting people in quality and healthy housing — there’s nothing more important than that.”
Property owners can also apply for loans and grants through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and they may participate in a $24 million pilot run by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and HPD that seeks to finance electrification and energy efficiency upgrades in about 1,200 units of housing.
Another $30 million in state funds are available for income-restricted buildings that are seven stories or shorter through the RetrofitNY program.
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) on Friday urged for the passage of federal legislation that would include about $150 billion for housing investments, which, he said, could be used to “create, preserve and retrofit 1.4 million units of affordable housing.”
“Part of Build Back Better must be building back safer,” he told reporters at the scene of the inferno earlier this month. “The fire in Twin Parks North West must be seen in the context of historical disinvestment from affordable housing, from places like the South Bronx, from lowest income communities of color, and the Build Back Better Act presents a historic opportunity to reverse decades of disinvestment.”
In addition to more federal funds, Robbins also wants to see more private financing, grants and investments from the New York Green Bank, a state agency with the mission to “accelerate clean energy deployment.”
The financing challenge will come to a head with new Local Law 97, which sets greenhouse gas emissions caps for buildings over 25,000 square feet. Mitchell-Lama buildings like Twin Parks have a compliance date of 2035, while most buildings must emit below the specified targets starting in 2024.
Equality and justice
Now it’s up to Mayor Eric Adams’ administration — with the help of an advisory board — to finalize the rules that govern the new law and figure out how to help property owners finance the upgrades necessary to achieve the emissions caps.
In the meantime, state Attorney General Letitia James said she intends to use the power of her office “to get to the bottom of this fire” as environmental advocates continue to sound the alarm that energy efficiency equals safety and justice.
“We can’t achieve a climate just society without centering BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] and low-income communities,” said Daphany Sanchez, executive director of Kinetic Communities Consulting, a firm focusing on energy equity. “The fire that you saw in The Bronx is exactly the issue: the result of people ignoring climate, the result of people ignoring Black and brown communities.”
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