Part 2: The Housing Crisis Meets Climate Crisis in Greater Boston

By Chelsea Dickens

The U.S. and many countries across the world are facing what’s called a housing crisis. Urban areas are seeing an increase in housing costs making affordable housing for a majority seemingly impossible.

The City of Boston has made it an initiative under Mayor Martin J. Walsh to find ways to solve the affordable housing crisis. At the same time, under the same administration, Boston is also under a plan to become a Zero Carbon Emission metropolitan region by 2050.

Interview with Policy Director Jennifer Effron image via BSA

Net-zero housing, or perhaps general energy efficient homes, may be the solution to both issues.

Across North America there are numerous projects where affordable housing and net-zero energy have coincided.

The Kaupuni Village, built in 2012 in Hawaii, was created to solve a housing crisis in the community. The 19 single-family units and community center were built under the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USBCG) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design umbrella. These structures are built to meet net-zero energy requirements with renewable energy-solar- meeting the energy needs and requirements such as energy star-rated utilities and natural ventilation, much like Mason Browne’s home.

A similar story is seen in South Dakota. The Oglala Lakota Nation of 35,000 members suffered from “over-crowding” while some of the population remained some of the poorest in the nation. Pine RIdge Reservation was enabled by the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in 2017 to build 32 single-family homes that are both affordable and energy-efficient for the new homeowners.

Energy-efficiency, insulation and design are components that every expert or professional can agree upon in the net-zero industry.

At a Zero Carbon Workshop at the Boston Society of Architects headquarters on Congress Street, June 28th, 30 architects and housing development professionals met to discuss new research by Placetailor and Thorton Tomasetti’s Contractors, Colin Schless and Travis Anderson, on the carbon emissions goal and just how far Boston has gotten.

“This plan has been set in place a decade ago,” Schless remarks while presenting a data powerpoint. “A decade ago, and we haven’t moved yet.”

Their study also points to the carbon emission rate, per person, that is acceptable enough for the city to be considered zero carbon based on what the environment can absorb and convert into, for example, oxygen.

“The city can withstand about one ton per person, per housing.” Schless says.

One of the ways the city can achieve both goals of meeting affordable housing needs and carbon emission reductions is finding more ways to create energy efficient homes.

Carol Oldham, Executive Director of Mass Climate Action Network, works as an advocate for renewable energy and its legislation. While advocating for laws she is also a resource for communities in the state who are attempting to develop more energy efficiency.

“So for communities we ask them how do you produce as much renewable energy on site, how do you ensure that you have the most efficient building as possible to start with,” Oldham says. “Have the rest of it be clean from somewhere close by whether that is off our shore, we have a huge offshore wind potential or even solar on somebody else’s roof.”

Finding ways to produce energy via onsite renewables becomes harder in densely populated areas such as inner-city Boston where gentrification and higher prices for rentals have driven out communities who can hardly afford utilities let alone rent prices.

Property Value in Boston area from 2017 by Chelsea Dickens (data courtesy of Data USA)

Household Income in Boston data visualization courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau of Labor Statistics via Data USA

“We really want to prioritize those folks who cannot afford the large energy bills so think about how we can prioritize affordable housing for instance,” Oldham says.

Stephanie Horowitz, an architect for ZeroEnergy Design, is still optimistic, as are many people in the housing industry, that there is a viable solution in net-zero housing as an affordable housing option as it has been proven in other areas in the country.

“Net zero which is producing as much energy as you use on an annual basis,” Horowitz says. “And as the scale of the house and the roof space available for solar begins to change it can be a challenge to produce that energy on site but if you’re looking at offsite than you definitely can reach net zero , but I think the strategy is about building enclosure, focusing on right sized mechanical systems and then where appropriate looking to offset with renewables.”

Meghan Shaw, Director for Cambridge Energy Alliance and city liaison for MassSave, says programs are in place to incentivize renters and landlords to be more energy efficient. Simple changes to a more efficient fridge, LED lighting can make a difference in energy costs, but actual rent prices are a different problem.

Property taxes and costs to developers and landlords drive the price of housing up. One suggested solution is incentivizing these people to build green from the beginning. Building these homes more compact, well insulated and utilizing natural lighting and energy efficient appliances are great ways to start. Many homes in the Greater Boston area are townhomes that are a lot older and can cause issue.

Michael McHugh, an architect at Davis Architects firm, has experience with retrofitting homes that are much older into more efficient ones.

“The energy [of older homes] is far below than that of some of the housing stock, that we also work on,” McHugh says. “Some of it is more than 100 years-old and it’s just energy flying out the windows. And we work on those too and try to bring them up to energy efficiency.”

Horowitz is convinced that simple changes to the interior and appliances of the home may be the best set solution for more densely populated areas where net-zero is just not a plausible option.

“[Efficiency] that works at any scale,” she says. “It’s just that you may not get to zero once the density of the building increases which is typically what does happen with multi-family homes which I think is okay as long as you’re focusing on the energy use of the building, the thermal comfort and indoor air quality for the occupants.”

About Chelsea Dickens 5 Articles
Chelsea is an up-and-coming journalist. Having recently graduated with her Masters from Emerson in College she now aspires to take on the broadcasting world from where she originally came prior to moving to Boston.