Our ambitious and large-scale decarbonization plans must include affordable housing by addressing the needs of low to moderate-income residents because we can’t accomplish these goals unless energy efficiency is equitable for the masses. True Climate Justice means that policymakers, building owners, financial institutions, community activists, energy efficiency service providers, and utility companies are all working together to bring climate equity and justice to our low-to-moderate income neighborhoods (and we probably missed some groups in there!).

Decarbonization is challenging. These challenges are exacerbated in the affordable housing market. Here are some of the biggest issues this market faces:

  1. Lower capital and operating budgets than the market rate and luxury buildings,
  2. Very high deferred maintenance costs,
  3. Unfamiliarity with new technologies,
  4. Traditionally older buildings which are inherently more difficult to upgrade,
  5. Traditional energy efficiency financing mechanisms don’t pencil out for affordable housing budgets, and
  6. Lack of utility incentive programs.

There could be a blog post on each of those points, but for now, let’s focus on the last item, the lack of utility incentive programs, how those programs can improve, and a few programs that are leading the way to make decarbonization a reality for affordable housing.

Ways to Improve Utility Programs for Affordable Housing

In an April 2022 article the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) suggested 2 simple ways to improve utility programs for affordable housing:

  1. Improve the energy efficiency of the building shell first, then equipment and systems.
  2. Greater incentives for electrification of building equipment and systems. This includes converting natural gas stovetops/ovens to electric conduction and where possible electrification of the HVAC systems.

Improving the building shell first reduces building heating and cooling loads. It also makes occupants more comfortable, which is crucial in affordable housing. By reducing building load, electrification of the HVAC is more cost-effective and efficient because heat pumps or new highly efficient furnaces/boilers can be downsized, all of which leads to few carbon emissions and lower energy costs.

Affordable housing budgets operate on very thin margins. This isn’t a new revelation! Government and utility programs can drive faster adoption rates by offering greater incentives to affordable housing providers and homeowners to adopt new electrification technologies.

ACEEE articulates the value of improved energy efficiency in affordable housing than we ever could:

“Low- and moderate-income households stand to gain several benefits from electrification and improved energy efficiency, including lower monthly utility bills and energy burdens. Eliminating the combustion of fossil fuels yields health and safety benefits, especially for people with respiratory conditions. Installing heat pumps to replace existing heating equipment can also provide air-conditioning—a potentially life-saving upgrade for homes not already air-conditioned—as more regions face deadly heat waves, as in the Pacific Northwest in 2021. And should the power go out, a home that is well sealed and insulated will maintain habitable temperatures for longer during temperature extremes.”

Programs that are leading the way to Decarbonize Affordable Housing

  1. The New York State Affordable Multifamily Energy Efficiency Program (AMEEP) is NYSERDA’s new energy efficiency program for Low-to-moderate income housing. The Multi-family Performance Program (MPP) is sunsetting and being replaced with this new program. AMEEP helps Affordable Housing Providers plan and implement deep retrofits to improve building performance and reduce carbon emissions. For program specifics, click here. It is also worth mentioning that the use of our product WindowSkin®, can contribute 20 of the 100 points needed to qualify for reimbursement with AMEEP in Con Edison territory in NYC. WexEnergy is working on statewide approval.
  2. California’s Low-Income Weatherization Program (LIWP) is one of the largest building electrification efforts in the USA> Since 2016, LIWP has offered more than $33M in incentives for energy efficiency measures for LMI residents.
  3. The Federal Government’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which is being implemented by every state just had $3.16B added to its funding which will enable WAP retrofits in 450,000 LMI homes.

You can see this list is short of transformative programs for the affordable housing markets. We need to enable all households to fight climate change. Empowering more people, especially utilities and government programs to join in on this effort will help us meet our climate targets and ensure that the benefits of decarbonization are shared by all.