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MAS Summit: is the path to sustainable housing changes in the housing code and work rules? Also, the savings from unsexy rehabs

What's the secret to developing sustainable and affordable housing? According to a housing panel at the Municipal Art Society's Summit for New York City Oct. 21-22, advocates might focus not on the availability of subsidies but on ways to bring construction costs down and to make better use of available space.

"The biggest impact you can actually have on the environment is live in smaller spaces and live in a shared household… and use mass transit," said Moderator Jerilyn Perine, Executive Director, Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC).

She noted that nearly half the people in Manhattan live alone. "Since a single person consumes 53% more energy than a single person who lives with other people, this is an overconsumption of housing," she said.

CHCP has advocated for housing code changes to allow more people to live together and to revise standards for single units. "In other places in the world, they are rethinking how to use space on the inside," she said. "That sadly is not really happening here."

At the same time, Perine noted an "underconsumption" in neighborhoods where housing is overcrowded: some 750,000 families are doubled up, living with at least one other head of household.

High cost of construction

Julia Vitullo-Martin, Director, Center for Urban Innovation, Regional Plan Association (RPA), said that in New York construction costs are " disproportionately expensive," substantially more expensive than even in union-dominated cities like Chicago and Boston and "ludicrously more expensive than in nonunion cities like Dallas."

While a few years ago, that didn't matter much, given New York's success, "now we're in a very different environment," she said, "and some of these other cities are looking extremely attractive."

At an event last year at the Manhattan Institute, Vitullo-Martin's former office, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, "made the astonishing comment that the city he feared most in the U.S. was Chicago."

She said that a Manhattan Institute study "a few years ago" of construction costs found New York's at $352 a square foot and Chicago at $163. (I'm not sure what type of building.)

More recently, she said, a commercial one-story building in New York was $215/sf, while Chicago was $187, Los Angeles $176, the District of Columbia $162, and Dallas $139..

Cost factors and CBAs

Vitullo-Martin said "everything" contributes to higher costs, including land, construction materials, the cost of shipping, and permitting and land use regulations.

"And to this we may soon be adding mandatory CBAs [community benefits agreements]," she added. "You may well think CBAs are good: why shouldn't communities get their cut? There may well be an argument, but truth is, that's going to be one more costly layer."

(Here's more of her critique of a recent report issued by Comptroller John Liu's task force.)

How to lower labor costs

Vitullo-Martin said that she and RPA colleague Hope Cohen have just started a study of labor costs, an "extremely expensive" factor, but subject to renegotiation.

"We've simply taken as a given high costs of wages/benefits," she said. "We're going to look at the uncompetitive practices, whether part of a contract, part of tradition--jurisdictional disputes where site gets shut down or work not done because it's the work of electrician or carpenter. They don't have those kind of jurisdictional disputes in Washington."

She said they'd studied a pair of matched residential towers, one built union, one non-union. The first took 30 months, at $365/sf. The second took 36 months, at $280/sf. "The builder believes second building better, because he didn't have jurisdictional disputes," she said.

"If green is our objective, we have to get away from the idea that buildings cost what they cost and government is simply going to make up the difference," Vitullo-Martin said. "Government isn't going to make up difference much longer."

Later, she was asked, "To what extent is organized crime and corruption being factored in your analysis of building cost, and are you advocating busting up of trade unions?"

Vitullo-Martin responded no to the second question, saying they were looking at work practices and jurisdictional disputes. She responded obliquely to the first question: "As for the mob, historically, the mob has been a problem in construction industry."

(In the Village Voice today, Tom Robbins writes Nailing the Mob's Builders: A contractor tells a billion-dollar industry's dirty secrets.)

The savings from rehab

The Enterprise Community Partners' Green Communities initiative has done a study that calculated it costs $1917 per dwelling unit to implement energy- and water-saving measures that save $4851 over the unit lifestyle.

Given that a lot of affordable projects dependent on government financing, Perine asked, "should government be subsidizing big new construction if they could do ten moderate rehabs?"

Bomee Jung, Program Director for Enterprise, said, "We do have an obligation to pay attention to these projects, not necessarily the sexiest [ones]."

Later, Vitullo-Martin added that "it would be very useful if city thought about zoning/permitting to unleash more extensive building," such as live/work zoning to allow both housing and small manufacturing or artists' space.