Boston Mayor Michelle Wu accelerated her push to wean the city off oil and gas this week when she announced plans to require all new construction and major renovations of public buildings to be free of fossil fuels.
Importantly, this includes a housing stock that has gotten less attention in the climate conversation: the city’s estimated 10,000 units in public housing, which the mayor also pledged will be entirely free of fossil fuels — new and older buildings — by 2030.
“This will mean unprecedented investments to modernize these buildings,” the mayor said in her first State of the City address on Wednesday, “ensuring that the families with greatest need benefit first from healthier homes and lower energy costs.”
While Wu did not put a price tag on the green conversion of public housing, the move is aimed at improving living conditions for lower-income Bostonians, who are often more affected by environmental degradation, yet too often left behind by green innovation.
“For residents, transitioning public housing units to be fossil fuel-free results in renovations and upgrades that support health, comfort, housing stability, and energy usage,” said Oliver Sellers-Garcia, Boston’s Green New Deal director, in an e-mail.
The Boston Housing Authority has been working for years to reduce its gas and energy usage. But the Wu fossil fuel conversion would to apply to all 56 of its complexes within just seven years.
Because of their often initial high cost, state-of-the-art green appliances, such as heat pumps and induction stoves, are more likely to be adopted by wealthier homeowners. The mayor’s new policy, said Daniel Aldana Cohen, who consulted on Wu’s Green New Deal campaign plan, could give the city’s 17,000 public housing residents, the majority of whom are lower-income people of color, similar access.
“In a city with MIT and other major research universities, you could hope that public housing in Boston will start to see the newest and most exciting green building technologies rather than waiting decades for the stuff to trickle out from the private sector, because the city will procure them,” said Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley who led the research for a federal Green New Deal for Public Housing proposal in 2021.
Since new electric appliances are often more efficient than older fossil fuel-powered ones, the conversion could also potentially lower energy bills at a time when they are soaring. Data show that people of color, low-income multifamily building residents, and renters in Boston have disproportionately high utility bills.
“Climate solutions like heat pumps must be accessible to everyone, and this plan sends the strong message that everyone must be included,” said Gaurab Basu, codirector of the Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy at Cambridge Health Alliance.
The burning of fossil fuels in buildings accounts for more than one third of Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions, city data show. Slews of studies also show exposure to fossil fuel-powered appliances like gas stoves creates major health risks.
These dangers don’t affect everyone equally. Climate change, fueled by greenhouse gas emissions, tends to disproportionately affect lower-income people of color. In Boston, neighborhoods with large numbers of low-income residents are more likely to experience extreme heat, according to the city, and lower-income Bostonians of color are also most affected by toxic pollution.
“Indoor air pollution from fossil fuels piped into our homes makes us sick — nitrogen dioxide impacts our children’s lungs and cognitive function, and methane gas exposes us to carcinogens like benzene,” Basu said. “This is of particular concern in low-income homes, which often are smaller and have poor ventilation.”
A 2022 Harvard study found, for instance, that lower-income Bostonians of color are most frequently exposed to in-home pollutants that trigger asthma.
Logan Malik, interim executive director of advocacy group Massachusetts Climate Action Network, praised Wu’s new plan, but added that he hopes the executive order is comprehensive.
“We are grateful for the mayor’s leadership on this critical issue and look forward to seeing the details of her proposal which we hope will include the allocation of considerable resources to deep energy retrofits and electrification for affordable housing,” he said.
John Walkey, director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at the local environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots, said the plan is a “very, very positive” step. But he said he hopes the city also takes steps to ensure other vulnerable residents see the benefits of greener housing.
“The tough nut to crack has been figuring out how we do this for folks like undocumented immigrants, who typically are not living in city-owned affordable housing or CDC-owned housing, but instead are more often living in privately owned homes,” he said. “That’s been a big challenge with Solarize Eastie,” he added, referring to a pilot program in which the city and GreenRoots are partnering to increase solar projects in East Boston.
He said he hopes the public housing program will make that work easier by creating a larger market for green upgrades.
“I think the city could help hook up private homeowners with the contractors doing this work for the city,” he said.
Aldana Cohen said there’s evidence this approach has worked in the past. “Public procurement is time-tested strategy of industrial policy,” he said.
In the 1990s, for instance, New York City’s public housing authority and its public utility held a contest to develop a new energy-efficient refrigerator. The winning model became the first-ever apartment-sized refrigerator to meet federal efficiency Energy Star certification.
Wu’s pledge follows her August announcement that Boston will apply to a state pilot program that will allow 10 municipalities to ban fossil fuels from new construction.
Tamara Small, chief executive of real estate association NAIOP Massachusetts, said a ban will have a huge impact on private developers, so she was glad to hear that the city will “practice what it’s preaching.”
“The private sector believes that as we navigate this world without fossil fuels, it is imperative that the public sector really lead by example,” she said.
The new pledge also comes as advocates push the federal government to remove gas stoves from public housing. And it follows a push for federal funds for green retrofits on public housing, a proposal that was part of President Biden’s original Build Back Better Act but was cut from the bill when it later became the Inflation Reduction Act.
Last week, Wu also announced a rent control proposal that is facing criticism from housing advocates who say it’s too weak, and from developers who say it will delay new construction.
A city spokesperson said she expects the new executive order will be filed within the next few months.
Aldana Cohen said the order could help build support for climate policies among the “multiracial working class of Boston” by providing them with direct benefits.
“It’s climate policy you can touch, feel, breathe,” he said.