‘Go Green’ Bleeds Life Into Public Housing ‘Demolition By Neglect’

exterior view of building with portable boiler and generator in the foreground
photo by Nick Normal is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In 2014, the heating system broke down at this NYCHA building. A portable boiler was a temporary fix. Last straw before demolition? Think again. It's had a complete green retrofit and is scheduled to re-open this fall.

Why should New York City, and a lot of other cities for that matter, refurbish existing public housing when knocking it down and building anew would be cheaper?

Because it’s growing clearer and clearer that soon it won’t be. Cheaper.

Hard to believe when New York City Public Housing (NYCHA) is facing a 40+ billion dollar repair bill.

But that was then, in the days of the ‘Knock It Down Before It Falls Down’ lobby, which included every eligible private developer in the country. They were eager to build new, free market housing on NYCHA land, while haggling to allow as few units possible for public housing.

What’s new? To start with, public voucher programs do not provide enough funding to shelter all of the people with very low and no income in the private market. With vouchers-for-all off the table, public housing has delivered rent-geared-to income housing, and it is the only massive system proven to effectively do so. It’s needed. Now.

Next, America is in a climate change crisis and a truly affordable housing crisis. ‘Going Green’ to prevent climate change means measuring carbon emissions as well as dollars. Accounting for carbon emissions, processes that once appeared dollar-cheap, are carbon-expensive.

So what’s new? Public housing is turning towards ‘unsexy’ but carbon-efficient refurbishing. An article in MIT Technology Review presents a lengthy survey of the world of cost-saving through ‘green’ technology. The survey starts with public housing and a new challenge from NYCHA to entice industries interested in/ capable of producing window mounted heat pumps. The pumps will heat and cool NYCHA’s residents. The payoff for the winner? A contract to buy an enormous number of units

The article carries on to review green refurbishing and new construction industries. It discusses what appear to be essential changes in construction approaches and methods, particularly through off-site modular construction. Green energy-efficient modular construction is already being employed successfully in Europe and Asia. Nothing about this new green technology is a slam dunk, however. It is finding slower acceptance and success in America.

Read more in MIT Technology Review: The future of urban housing is energy-efficient refrigerators