Political Animal


April 06, 2013 10:35 AM How NIMBY Anti-Density Policies Impede Heating Efficiency

By Ryan Cooper

Emily Badger reported the other day on a study looking at the difference in energy use between Minneapolis and Miami:

Minneapolis - just talking here about heating and cooling - is three-and-a-half times as energy demanding as Miami, a finding that will likely shock people there (or in Milwaukee or Buffalo) who’ve long prided themselves on life without A/C.

This does make some intuitive sense, given the temperature differentials involved. Just in terms of heat flow, it will be easier to move from 95 degrees to 70 than from 10 to 70. The only solution, as Matt Yglesias points out, is to improve weatherization and insulation. People have basically figured this out—check out the passivhaus energy standards, for example. Adding that kind of thing to a new home isn’t even that expensive anymore, and can easily pay for itself over the medium term.

So why doesn’t it happen? One reason is anti-density zoning policy.

I live in a ratty group house in northeast DC, built in 1908, and last remodeled (to generously estimate) in about 1960. It leaks like a sieve, the windows are lousy, it uses inefficient steam heat, and it’s poorly insulated. Turn off the heat and it’s at ambient air temperature inside of an hour.

Yet I live there because it’s relatively cheap. Rents are eyewateringly high in DC, and I’ll gladly take a drafty old place to economize. So a landlord (who doesn’t have to pay for the heating/cooling, remember) who would rather not go through the headache of hiring a contractor and buying a bunch of construction materials can just coast on crummy, inefficient heating for forty years and more.

If we had more housing, and rents were therefore lower, it would be harder to attract tenants to such a place, and landlords would be incentivized to fix up or replace their aging housing stock.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Dan Tyler on April 06, 2013 11:56 AM:

    There's a lot simpler solution than building so many new units that rents fall. Simply require new construction to adhere to aggressive, but cost-effective energy standards. It's been done in California since Jerry Brown was governor in the 70's. As a result, the average home and commercial building in the golden state uses much less energy than if builders were allowed to race to the bottom of the energy efficiency barrel. Retrofits are a harder issue, but energy conservation programs that leverage private money can pay for themselves by the savings for heat and power. The trick in your situation is incentivizing your landlord to make the investment.

  • c u n d gulag on April 06, 2013 11:59 AM:

    Back when I was younger, in the late 70's, as gas and oil prices were skyrocketing, both of my parent were working, as was I, I told my father now was the time to insulate the house he'd bought in '69, and had been built in '62.

    My father passed away a year ago, and we never got around to insulating this old house, and we've had astronomical oil bills for decades.

    Of course, my sister and I told him to sell the house as the market was going up in the last decade, but didn't do that either.

    Oh, and you want to see heating rooms?
    I went to Moscow in January of '95, and the rooms we were in must have been kept at 80+ degrees.

    When I asked a Russian about the heat, he told me that in the old USSR, the government couldn't offer much the people, and that outdoors they were on their own as far as coats, hats, gloves, and boots, but the government be damned if the people were going to bitch that it was cold inside, too.

  • tsts on April 06, 2013 12:57 PM:

    I think this post misses the main reasons why housing in the the US, including the Northeast, is often substandard in insulation, compared to countries in northern Europe. One reason is that energy is cheaper in the US. Another one is that the building codes for insulation are ridiculously weak and outdated. The third one is that nobody in the US gives a damn about the problem, at least compared to other countries.

    Also, stupid laws pretending to protect tenants. I don't know about rules in DC, but in New York landlords are required to pay for heating. Of course, in the end the tenants pay for it anyway, via higher rents, but their incentive to behave responsibly is removed. In Germany, AFAIK, it is mandated that such costs be metered and paid by the individual parties. (On the other hand, I do not understand why the NYC rules don't provide more incentives to landlords to do something about insulation - my last rental place was always overheated and the only way to lower temperature was to open windows.)

    Anyway, Ryan is right that it is well known how to lower energy use with better insulation etc. That is what makes the whole discussion about energy consumption and global warming in the US so infuriating - you always get the claim that the US requires such waste for its high standard of living. But for the US, it would be so much easier to reduce energy use by 20% than for most other advanced countries because there is still so much low-hanging fruit available. Just stop wasting it in obvious and ridiculous ways.

  • Anonymous on April 06, 2013 1:00 PM:

    Building codes are the way to go. If the was lesser demand for more units the incentive is to build them cheaper using the least amount of insulation one can get away with. No one ever asks about insulation before they move into a place and you can't see behind the walls.

  • Anonymous on April 06, 2013 1:13 PM:

    There's a lot simpler solution than building so many new units that rents fall. Simply require new ....cost-effective energy standards.

    Of course, there's even a simpler solution. One which today's politicians seemed to have already perfected. Do nothing. Increasing global resource demand will cause skyrocketing energy prices forcing the American public to begrudgingly do what people of all types hate most, adjust their lives and their routines. Meanwhile, American politicians will simply pander and demagogue the issue until we're all dead from a cooked planet.

  • jpeckjr on April 06, 2013 9:59 PM:

    I am wondering how "anti-density" zoning plays a role. The headline and the article both mention it, but there is no expansion of the idea. Most of the post is about providing landlords incentives to weatherize rental property.

    Your point about having more housing is about lower rents through competition, not energy savings. Dividing more 1908 sieves into apartments would increase density, but not energy savings.

    I'm sure if we tore down everything everywhere that doesn't meet the most up-to-date conservation standards, we'd save lots of energy as well as dramatically changing the fabric of our urban communities. Where would be dump all the demolition waste, and would there be any environmental concerns about that?

  • Rich on April 06, 2013 10:41 PM:

    I live in an old masonry building in DC---my a/c season electric bills are much higher than the heating season bills. When I lived in a 1920s uninsulated house in Atlanta, I paid more in winter but that was for deregulated natural gas. I suspect that heating/cooling costs vary by fuel and building type.

  • Crissa on April 07, 2013 3:54 AM:

    Then why are houses in relatively open non-NIMBY areas even more inefficient?

    There's just no reason for a landlord to invest in things which save their tenants money.