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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The link between sustainability and affordable housing

Brian White, the Executive Director of Lakeside Community Development Corporation, submitted a follow up to my May 28th post "Measuring Chicago's Sustainability." He points out the problems caused by the aging infrastructure in Rogers Park, our neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago, especially as it pertains to inefficiencies in heating.

What he suggests is a better partnership between landlords and tenants, as well as improved funding sources to aid landlords willing to maintain affordability as they try to improve sustainability. Because of the great social advantages, it doesn't seem like too much to ask of our government. The long-term savings from tackling these structural issues will far outweigh the short-term costs. We just need to pressure our politicians to recognize that truth.

Here's the full text of his response:

Affordable housing is directly related to sustainability due to the role that operating costs play in driving conversions. Larger property owners have complained publicly and privately that the three factors that push them to convert rental buildings to condos are costs of property taxes, utilities, and insurance. When the core operating costs cannot be offset by higher rents, they simply convert.

Heat is the primary expense for landlords when it comes to utilities. The brick buildings that make up much of Rogers Park's housing stock were not well insulated when they were built and they bleed heat. Because the exteriors are brick, in order to insulate them today, a landlord has to insulate the exterior walls from inside the units. That means a gut rehab.

Some landlords try to curb heat loss by controlling temps or penalizing tenants for wasting heat, i.e. by leaving windows open in winter. Other landlords try to get into units to tap radiators and keep their buildings balanced, but if tenants don’t provide access or do so at widely varying times, it results in hassle and cost to the landlord. Finally, landlords will invest in more efficient systems, but without temperature controls and tenant help in maintaining systems annually, savings from improved efficiency is eroded. In short, success in these efforts requires a good deal of cooperation between landlord and tenant, something that may not exist in many buildings.

A joint effort between tenants and landlords to reduce heat consumption, perhaps in exchange for landlords holding the line on rents, might contribute to preserving some modest degree of affordability. As part of a broader effort to preserve existing affordable units that are also transportation efficient (i.e. near transit) and to modify buildings with improved energy systems, it would help. Additionally, funders need to get involved by providing financing that allows landlords to make improvements to properties without breaking the bank. Because in the end, the costs a landlord absorbs on the front end are too often passed on to the rear ends of the tenants in the form of a boot out the door. That cycle has to end.

Sustainability efforts work best when missions and markets align. We have a great opportunity to demonstrate that in Rogers Park by linking the need to make rental housing affordable with the mission of reducing our net impact on systems and the environment.

Brian White
Lakeside CDC
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