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How Chicago’s housing stock can help fight climate change

Many of Chicago’s residents live in older buildings that don’t meet modern energy efficiency standards

Curbed Chicago Flickr pool/Brule Laker

This single largest polluter in Chicago is its buildings. And while energy efficiency is a consideration when developers and architects propose and erect newer buildings, the vast majority of Chicagoans live in older homes that are energy intensive. A newly released study from Elevate Energy offers some enlightening insight into Chicago’s built environment and the residents that occupy the city’s housing stock. The study, which comes as a part of the Energy Efficiency for All initiative (EEFA), indicates that three out of four Chicago residents live in older brick and frame multi-family buildings that were constructed before 1942.

While this revelation may not be too surprising to many residents, it’s crucial to consider how much energy it takes to heat and cool these buildings and the costs to supply this energy. According to the study, Chicago is home to about 1 million units of housing in multi-family buildings. And of these units, Elevate Energy estimates that roughly a third are condominiums, while the remaining two-thirds—or 700,000 units—are rental apartments. Much of these rental apartments and condos are very old—of the 1 million units of multi-family buildings in Chicago, 75 percent was constructed before 1942.

Condo associations and flippers do get around to modernizing much of the housing stock in more affluent areas, but in lower income neighborhoods, many buildings remain energy inefficient. Culprits like poor insulation, old windows, and leaky pipes cause older homes to use much more gas, electricity, and water than newer buildings. These inefficiencies not only lead to steeper utility bills, but they also cause more pollution and greenhouse emissions. And when also taking Chicago’s extreme weather into account, energy efficiency becomes even more important.

Based on their findings, Elevate Energy suggests that better energy programs should be offered for Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. Based on their housing stock and number of lower income families living in multi-unit buildings, the report highlights six communities that stand to see big improvements from better energy efficiency programs: Auburn-Gresham, Austin, Humboldt Park, the Lower West Side, North Lawndale and South Lawndale. According to Elevate Energy, by targeting these six neighborhoods, up to 80,000 units of housing in 25,000 buildings stand to benefit from efficiency programs.

Three years ago, the mayors of several major cities across the country joined together under the City Energy Project to focus on ways to reduce greenhouse emissions from buildings. And while the most visible offenders may be high-rise office, hotel, and residential buildings that blanket the downtown area, it’s clear that improving the energy efficiency of Chicago’s older housing stock can not only make a big dent in the city’s greenhouse emissions, but doing so will also lower costs to property owners and help improve the health of Chicago residents.