What’s Holding Up New York’s Climate Progress? Apartment Buildings.
Many New York apartment buildings have less than a year to get in line with an ambitious climate mandate, or risk facing millions of dollars in penalties.
Craig Hart is troubled by a multimillion-dollar puzzle: How to get his condo building to conform with the city’s sweeping new climate law before potentially steep penalties begin next year.
“I’ve been looking at every option I can think of, and I don’t know what to do,” said Mr. Hart, the board president of the Washington Heights condo. Mr. Hart, who studied ways to prevent climate change at M.I.T., believes in the aims of the new measure: to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions that are warping weather patterns and raising sea levels.
Now, months before compliance begins, a mix of real estate interest groups are lobbying to delay the process or carve out exemptions, claiming that the requirements are too burdensome for residential boards with limited funding. But environmental groups warn that weakening the law could imperil its goals at a time when climate change is already endangering the city.
Mr. Hart, for one, is not sure where he will find the money to get his century-old condo into compliance. Should he add solar panels and heat pumps to a roof already due for a $650,000 replacement? Install an updated fossil-fuel-burning boiler system that will still fall short as requirements become stricter in coming years? What about a laundry list of other costly repairs and renovations?
“I want to be zero carbon, zero penalties and zero debt,” he said. “But it’s not going to be an easy road.”
Local Law 97, part of New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act of 2019, is one of the country’s boldest climate laws, with half a dozen other municipalities pursuing similar models. Its goal is to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050 by setting increasingly stringent limits on the city’s biggest polluters — buildings.
The largest buildings in New York City — some 50,000 structures representing everything from office towers to supermarkets to hospitals — must drastically cut their carbon emissions from sources like fossil-fuel-burning boilers. As the clock ticks, property managers are coming to a stark realization: the city’s drafty and aging apartment buildings may face the toughest adjustments.
The most significant increase in emissions in the United States last year came from homes and buildings, which burn fossil fuels like natural gas in furnaces, water heaters and other machinery. They produce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that trap heat and warm the planet.
Already average global temperatures are set to rise between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, far above the 1.5-degree threshold that scientists believe will bring about major, irreversible effects like sea level rise measured in feet, not inches.
About 70 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. The law targets properties over 25,000 square feet, ranging from low-rise buildings with a few dozen apartments to the tallest office towers. Though they are a small fraction of the city’s million buildings, the structures still produce roughly half of all emissions from buildings.
Office towers, which generally rely more on electricity for their energy needs, are not the category of property likely to face the toughest route to compliance. As the grid moves away from fossil fuels, their carbon output will also drop, said Louise Yeung, the chief climate officer at the City Comptroller’s Office.
About 60 percent of the properties that need to comply in 2024 are residential — including a hodgepodge of apartment buildings with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels for their heating and cooling. Those not in compliance could face close to a total of $60 million in fines per year, according to an analysis of city data by the Urban Green Council, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on decarbonizing buildings.
Some properties, including affordable housing developments, will be subject to alternative or delayed compliance. Most buildings already meet the 2024 limits, but a majority could fail to reach the stricter goals outlined for 2030 and beyond.
“Local Law 97 is going to be hard,” said Eunice Ko, the deputy director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, a nonprofit representing low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. “But would you rather your home be inundated with flooding or have 20 days over 90 degrees in the summer?”
Glen Oaks Village is a cooperative of more than 2,900 apartments in 134 low-rise buildings in northeastern Queens. With over 100 acres of manicured lawns and tidy brick houses, it has more in common with the suburbs of Long Island than the towers of Manhattan.To comply with Local Law 97, the co-op board plans to replace all 94 of its gas-and-oil boilers with more energy-efficient models. It could take between five and 10 years and cost around $24.5 million, said Bob Friedrich, the board president.
But even that investment will not be enough to avoid paying penalties of around $700,000 a year, starting in 2030, because the property would still produce too much pollution, he said.
“They are not looking at the real-life cost of this,” Mr. Friedrich said, noting that the penalties would force the board to sharply increase maintenance fees.
“I’m terrified of it,” said Arlene Bett, 60, a longtime resident who has paid off a small one-bedroom apartment in the complex but worries about her $500-a-month maintenance fee ballooning. “I will not be able to afford it, and there’s no place cheaper,” she said.
A greener option would be to replace the boilers with electric heat pumps, but that would cost close to $10 million more, Mr. Friedrich said.
While the upfront cost is substantial, going electric would be the best strategy to avoid penalties and eventually lower the property’s utility bills, said Darren Johnson, a senior account manager with Bright Power, an energy consulting firm that is advising the co-op. And the current generation of heat pumps work well in cold weather, despite concerns about the efficiency of some older models, he said.
“The choice isn’t Tesla or bust,” said Donnel Baird, the chief executive of BlocPower, an energy consulting firm. “You can have a Prius,” and still make meaningful cuts to carbon emissions. There are less costly improvements that a building can pursue first, he said, like swapping out incandescent light bulbs with L.E.D.s and improving insulation.
But for the city to meet its goals in 2030, many buildings may need to carry out more extensive work, like installing heat pumps or rewiring their electricity. It’s expensive work that could be particularly challenging for middle-income residential buildings that have more modest reserves and fewer options for financing, compared to some large commercial properties.
There are also a growing number of low-interest loans and grants for green-energy improvements, as well as billions in federal subsidies earmarked for infrastructure projects, Mr. Baird said.
A spokesman for the Department of Buildings, which oversees the rule’s enforcement, said the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 was designed to allow property owners to plan ahead. NYC Accelerator, a city program, offers free guidance to help buildings comply with the law.
In May, a group of residential property owners, including Mr. Friedrich, sued the city to prevent the enforcement of Local Law 97, claiming that the penalties are too burdensome and target the wrong buildings, among other arguments. The case is ongoing.
In February, Vickie Paladino, a Republican city councilwoman representing Northeast Queens, proposed a bill to delay enforcement of the law for seven years.
Critics of the law have pushed for additional carve-outs, like the option to buy more renewable energy credits, or RECs, to offset their emissions. The credits allow buildings to pay off a portion of their excess carbon emissions by buying electricity from renewable sources, like wind and solar farms.
The city can also reduce penalties on buildings that make a “good faith effort” to get in compliance, but the criteria for the rule, as well as guidance on energy credits, is not expected to be finalized until later this year. If buildings are allowed to buy too many credits, it could weaken the law overall, said Pete Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director of New York Communities for Change, a community organizing group.
“We won the battle to pass the law but now they’re trying to gut the law in its implementation,” he said.
For Mr. Hart, the condo board president, theory and practice are clashing in his six-story, prewar condo in Washington Heights. In his day job as the executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, a policy think tank, he works on cutting-edge renewable energy projects.
But at home, he has to figure out the best replacement for a more than 40-year-old boiler without breaking the bank.
Then there are the challenges of retrofitting a century-old property. The building is in a landmark district, complicating efforts to upgrade the facade. Electric heat pumps can be installed in apartments but require careful routing through the guts of the building.
“I’m afraid we are nowhere near where we need to be,” he said.