Response to Seven Days Story on Energy Sources

Champlain Housing Trust has developed roughly 3,000 homes over our almost four decades of work. In addition to developing and managing affordable housing, CHT’s work touches on a wide variety of social, environmental and economic needs, including, but not limited to, responding to the public health emergency caused by Covid-19, the opioid epidemic, storm water runoff, Brownfields remediation, mental health, access to transportation, food security, connection to primary health care, housing people coming out of homelessness and for people buying their first home, and, certainly not least, climate change. We juggle all of these needs while responding to Vermont’s well-documented housing shortage.

We don’t feel that the Seven Days article on the electrification of an apartment building in Morrisville that compared the use of natural gas our new development in Colchester gave a complete accounting of our priorities nor justification for our decisions. In fact, BOTH developments described in the article are being co-developed with Evernorth, which leads these development efforts, and who has partnered with Vermont nonprofits on affordable housing for years. Collectively, CHT and the nonprofit network in Vermont has a long track record of building housing that is among the most energy efficient and most affordable in the state.

CHT agrees that we must do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. We are also in the midst of a housing crisis, where low-income households are desperately in need of safe, decent affordable housing.

For the last three decades, the affordable housing sector has been working at the intersection of these two issues. We have been on the leading edge of building energy efficient homes with the help of Efficiency Vermont, BED, GMP and VT Gas. The homes we build are by their very nature highly efficient – multi-story, multi-unit buildings with minimum exterior wall-space for heat loss, in growth centers and downtowns with access to public transportation.

Since the 1990s our buildings have consistently exceeded energy efficiency requirements by methodically increasing the insulation levels of our buildings, testing new more efficient building methods, equipment and appliances. We have been a leader in the installation of alternative energy systems from roof-top solar hot water systems installed in the early 2000s to wood-pellet boilers in the 2010s. We weigh all of these decisions with much more than a cost-benefit analysis and have successfully included some form of non-fossil fuel based energy source to almost 800 of our apartments.

CHT has also been focused on our operations side as well. In addition to being in the process of adding 20 electric vehicle charging stations to our properties to create the infrastructure needed for the future, we also just purchased two EVs for our staff to use while going out in the field. We are looking into doing more of this. In fact, for over fifteen years we’ve provided free bus passes for any staff commuting to work, and stipends for those who walk or bike. Addressing climate change is not a slogan for us.

In every decision we make, and whenever we develop new housing, climate impact is a critical part of the equation. But there is an energy justice issue that was not discussed in the Seven Days article. Ignoring the costs and affordability of our buildings, and seemingly pitting one affordable housing development against another, brushes aside the inequity of those decisions on lower income Vermonters. We all must take steps to avert the climate crisis, but we must take particular care to ensure that low-income Vermonters are not carrying an unfair share of the cost.

It would be relatively simple to electrify ALL buildings in Vermont if that choice did not add to both the upfront capital costs and ongoing operating costs – when we put that expectation on affordable housing, it will reduce the number of people housed, and increase their costs. That’s an equity issue. The utility costs for a building heating and cooled by electricity is 30%-40% higher than a building heated with natural gas.

We need to have a conversation around the efforts to address climate change and the impact on housing and income equity. If we are asking affordable housing development to add costs to electrify buildings (ultimately borne by low-income households), can state policy also add meaningful financial incentives to take these steps?

Let’s have a discussion around equity in our energy and housing policies. Are we addressing the economic burden and higher responsibility for addressing climate change on our lower income households?