JPNC Housing & Development Committee continues discussion on sustainability and construction

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Housing & Development Committee held a virtual meeting on May 19, where members and residents continued their discussion of sustainability standards in construction and talked about electrification and the construction of affordable housing. 

 The City’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) released recommendations regarding affordable housing construction, which was used as the basis for some of the discussion, and the Committee was also looking for ways it could advocate for affordable housing to meet sustainability goals.

Last month, the Committee heard a presentation from Aidan Foley, who talked about the issues, concerns, and opportunities for electrification of new construction in the neighborhood. He said that things like life cycle cost consideration, health concerns, and what has been done in Brookline with banning new hook ups for gas and oil are all things that should be considered.  In Brookline, the ban applies to single family homes and most buildings less than 15,000 square feet. 

“Our focus as a committee,” committee chair Carolyn Royce said, is that “we often end up looking at bigger Article 80 projects.” She said that other JPNC Committees such as the Zoning Committee, hear smaller cases so it’s important to see “what we can advocate for in Jamaica Plain,” especially with the Housing & Development Committee’s goal of supporting affordable housing in the neighborhood.  

 Jennifer Pinck, President of Pinck and Co., a real estate consultant in Boston, talked at the meeting about sustainability and how it relates to the construction of affordable housing. 

Pinck worked on the construction of the Erie Ellington Apartments in Dorchester in 1999 and 2000, which were known as being “green” and energy efficient. “It’s interesting to note that everything we did plus many other things that became popular and desirable,” she said. “The savings in operating costs actually made it more financeable to developers.” 

She said that in subsequent years “as green became more popular” and the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED certifications became more popular, “the movement grew and the awareness of this was increased all around.”

Pinck said that she believes that lenders began to understand that they might have to spend a little more during construction, “but in terms of operating costs and reducing fuel use, from a financial point, there is more money left in the…budget to pay debt.” Additionally, there have been studies that show that the cost increase is little or none for constructing buildings with zero emissions.

She said that while city agencies like the Boston Water and Sewer Commission are “caught up” on sustainable practices, “utilities are still dinosaurs.” 

She spoke about the DND recommendations, calling them “interesting” and saying that its recommendation to build “simple massing” is easier, less expensive to build, and will perform better from a sustainable point of view, but in many areas of the city there is “tension” between a developer, an owner, and the neighborhood “to deliver something to an affordable market.” There is also the consideration of how the building looks, which is important to residents across Boston neighborhoods, Jamaica Plain being one of them,

“Some contractors have the upper hand with the building boom we’ve been in,” Pinck said. With more prefabrication available, the cost is somewhat reduced. 

She suggested that what the neighborhood group should be advocating for as far as affordable housing “is going to be more greatly influenced by the economic climate.”

Sam Montano, a member of the Committee, said that passive housing “is definitely something we can do.” She also said that exploring 3d printing housing could also be done. “These are great goals to have neutral housing but the fact that so many folks across the country are homeless…that to me is the real issue,” she said. “How can we bridge the two?”

Montano added that “costs have to be factored in with women and folks of color,” which have a stake in the construction of affordable housing. “Can we afford to pay the labor?”  

Pinck also said that construction has “gotten to be an incredibly complicated business,” and thinks that electrification could be an answer for simplifying things. “I think it has a lot of potential in terms of reducing complexity in the building business and maybe controlling costs,” she said.

A question was raised about retrofitting existing homes for electrification, which Pinck said was “much thornier than new construction,” as “there are so many costs and risks to renovating an old building.” She said that adding electrification to new construction is typically “a piece of cake,” but “it is the existing housing and building stock that is the challenge.”

A suggestion was made by Kathy Brown to have someone from the DND come out and talk to the neighborhood about this topic. “The advocacy is really important for us to do,” she added. “However we can press on that so the resources are there—we shouldn’t have to compromise our health and and our kids’ future for the environment.”

Andy Waxman of The Community Builders agreed that pushing the rule makers in a certain direction will allow more to happen, because “we have to follow what those folks say.”

Royce talked about takeaways from the meeting and what the committee can do going forward. “There’s a role for our committee in advocating for affordable housing to meet sustainable housing goals,” she said, adding that a “point we can make over and over again” is the long term costs versus short term costs of electrification. 

“We still have some questions for our committee to consider in terms of what we can support and what we can advocate for,” she said, and next month’s meeting will begin by taking a look at some of those questions as well as to think more clearly about what it is the Committee would like to advocate for on this topic and who else can be involved in the conversation. 

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