A Green Trendsetter: NYC's Public Housing

Print More

The lives of New York City's 408,000 public housing residents will be getting a bit greener over the coming years if Mayor Bloomberg and a commissioner of the New York City Housing Authority have their way. As part of Mayor Bloomberg's broad PlaNYC initiative — a detailed environmental blueprint to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 — NYCHA Commissioner Margarita Lopez has been appointed as the authority’s first environmental coordinator.

Responsibilities of the new position include setting attainable environmental goals for the 13,000-employee agency and implementing programs to meet them. The specifics of how that will happen are set to be unveiled next month. A city councilwoman representing the Lower East Side from 1998 to 2005 and NYCHA board member for more than a year, Lopez describes herself as an activist with a progressive green agenda.

She says there’s plenty of room for environmental progress in NYCHA’s massive real estate holdings, even though its Energy Department has been researching and implementing environmentally sustainable practices for years. “Nobody has ever done things like this on this scale. What NYCHA does will impact private developers’ understanding of how to reduce energy consumption,” Lopez said.

Because of the scale of NYCHA’s residential portfolio, its green efforts have been and will continue to be monitored by other housing authorities across the country and other housing developers in the city. NYCHA is the second largest landlord in the country, behind the U.S. Army, and with housing stock ranging from 30 to 70 years old, many developers will be able to look to NYCHA for affordable ways to retrofit green technology and practices.

NYCHA started down the road of energy efficiency well before PlaNYC was announced in April. “NYCHA is a model for other housing agencies. They knew the energy consumption rate per square foot for all of their buildings 15 years ago; long before any other private or government entity knew things like that,” says Andrew Padian, a senior housing specialist in the NYC office of Steven Winter Associates, a national architecture and engineering firm that specializes in energy efficient multi-family housing.

This past spring, for example, NYCHA partnered with the New York Power Authority, a state-owned low-cost power provider, to kick off a $64 million program that will ultimately install energy-saving hot water heaters in about one-fifth of NYCHA’s 2,644 residential buildings. A pilot program was recently launched by NYCHA to replace 12,000 standard lightbulbs with the more energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in two Brooklyn housing developments. The Con Edison Electricity Demand Reduction Program is subsidizing the cost of the new bulbs. Changing those 12,000 bulbs is expected to reduce carbon emissions by approximately 366,000 pounds a year. And Lopez notes the authority is also looking into purchasing new energy-efficient refrigerators.

While the authority’s website highlights the enthusiasm of one of its residents at the prospect of getting the new lightbulbs in her home, not every NYCHA resident is excited by the agency’s sustainability efforts.

Tyrone, a 28-year-old resident of Manhattan’s Alfred E. Smith Houses who did not want to supply his last name, thinks NYCHA has more important things to spend money on than energy efficiency. “That money would be better spent on fixing these elevators that break everyday,” Tyrone said last week at the complex in lower Manhattan. “My grandmother is in a wheelchair. She can’t get up and down those steps.”

Another Alfred E. Smith resident, 40-year-old Shavone Goodwin agreed. “They should be spending money on keeping this place up,” Goodwin said.

Some say that using energy efficient appliances will ultimately help get residents the improvements they are looking for. “Owners who use energy efficient appliances and use proper insulation will save money,” says Gita Nandan, president of the board of GreenHomeNYC, a nonprofit seeking to spread the use of sustainable building practices among builders, homeowners and residents. “That money can be used to fix things in the building, and tenants will have lower utility bills.”

Others worry that in the face of its $225 million deficit, NYCHA can’t afford the short-term costs of replacing aging refrigerators, stoves and water heaters. But Lopez contends that many of the initiatives she will spearhead as part of her new position will not necessarily cost NYCHA money.

“There will be some creative financial decisions. NYCHA might not put in any of the upfront money. We have partnered with other companies and agencies before and we will definitely look into that for our new programs,” says Lopez. She’s excited about working with NYCHA residents, as she says their being conscientious energy users is critical to meeting PlaNYC goals.

– Demetria Irwin