Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Want to Cut Emissions in New York City? Pass This Zoning Amendment

A solar future (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Climate change is here – and it is here to stay unless we take immediate action. One simple but meaningful way to make an impact is to empower property owners with the tools they need to reduce or altogether eliminate building emissions. 

Fortunately, the New York City Department of City Planning’s proposed City of Yes: Carbon Neutrality is up to the task. This zoning reform (a “zoning text amendment” in land use jargon) will help New York meet its goal of cutting 80% of carbon emissions by 2050.

At the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH), our members want to retrofit their buildings to reduce their carbon footprints, but archaic zoning rules stand in the way – rules created 60 years ago, in an era when asbestos insulation and leaded gasoline seemed like pretty good ideas. City Planning has put forth the right proposal to deal with this challenge, and now we just need the City Council to approve it.

Many affordable housing developments across the five boroughs were built in another era, long before energy efficiency became a priority – and long before modern tools were conceptualized and brought to market. What’s more, many affordable and public housing developments were built in low-lying areas that are particularly vulnerable to climate threats like storm surges and rising sea levels. In fact, we’ve already seen the damaging impacts from Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Ida, and other extreme weather events that are only growing more common.

Among other benefits, the proposed zoning tweaks would allow elevated solar panels to cover 100% of a roof area, possibly increasing potential solar energy generation by 290%. This is a massive step to improve solar energy progress in New York – a need that will only grow as electrification continues to gain prominence.

City of Yes: Carbon Neutrality would also enable building retrofits for exterior insulating panels, which will help prevent energy waste. Adding insulation inside a building often reduces apartment sizes and leaves gaps in the façade for heat to leak. Due to floor-area regulations for affordable housing properties, developers are often prevented from installing exterior cladding. The zoning change would help remove those arbitrary and outdated restrictions. 

Heating and cooling systems across buildings are vital for reducing the city’s overall carbon footprint. Most New York building furnaces and boilers run on natural gas and oil, accounting for about 42% of the city’s total greenhouse emissions. However, current zoning text restricts infrastructure on roofs and yards, often preventing building owners from pursuing electrification. City of Yes: Carbon Neutrality would expand the ability to place HVAC equipment, like heat pumps, in these areas for more efficient energy systems.  

In other words, these are minor changes everyone already agrees with that will have a big impact – and they are examples of the sort of proactive climate thinking New York needs.

Every day that the zoning text goes unchanged is another one that we are preventing more responsible, ethical energy practices in New York City. We cannot afford to skirt these changes any longer. We hope that the Community Boards, Borough Boards, Borough Presidents, City Planning Commission, and City Council will vote to approve this zoning text amendment as soon as possible. New Yorkers deserve no less.

Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing. On Twitter @NYSAFAH.

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