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Roughly 40.1 million Americans live in apartments. For many, they’re living in the past.
Nearly half of all apartments were built before 1980, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council and the National Apartment Association. That means many of the 40.1 million nation’s apartment dwellers are living with outdated heating (radiators, anyone?), gas stoves, and other appliances and amenities that are harmful to health and wellbeing (as well as their finances). In public housing, the situation is even more dire, with $70 billion in backlogged repairs.
Upgrading all these existing apartments, as well as ensuring any new buildings are energy efficient, clean, and affordable has never been more important. The U.S.—and indeed, the world—is urbanizing. The apartments of the next decade will need to be decarbonized, yes. But it also wouldn’t hurt if they were actually pleasant places to live and accessible to everyone.
There are several ways that developers and agencies in charge of public housing could improve apartments and make life better for city dwellers over the next decade. Here, we look at five of the most important.
1. Improve Heating and Cooling
The apartments of the future will have to balance keeping people cool (and, at least occasionally, warm) in an increasingly hot world with not contributing to climate change. Right now, most heating and cooling systems rely on fossil fuels and emit millions of tons of greenhouse gas pollution annually.
Heating is the largest source of carbon emissions for New York’s more than 1 million buildings, according to the Urban Green Council. Air conditioning may feel sweet on a hot day, but 10% of Americans don’t have access to it. Both central air conditioning and window units can also be costly to run and taxing on the electric grid, in addition to producing some of the most damaging greenhouse gases on Earth. But rather than waiting for new solutions to be invented to keep the apartments of 2030 comfortable, the technology already exists.
The National Apartment Association suggests variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems as an alternative to radiators, though these may not be agreeable with the electrical systems of older buildings. VRF systems are heat pumps that provide both heating and cooling simultaneously. They transfer heat rather than generating it, making them energy efficient, and the systems can operate at whatever capacity is needed for the desired warmth or coolness of a space. Compare that to an air conditioner, many of which simply have two options—on or off—or a third energy-saving mode, if you’re lucky. They also reduce heating or cooling loss by limiting the amount and size of the holes you need to put in to install them. VRF systems are modular, meaning that if you add apartments to a building, you can easily add a new VRF unit to the system—a convenient adaptation for apartment living and a world where building denser cities could help address carbon pollution and the housing crisis.
The heat pumps in VRF systems also have been shown to improve air quality and represent a manageable way American cities could clean up their act on an energy front. Heat pumps are common in the southern states, where they have an easier time functioning than in colder climates.
Modern improvements have enabled their use elsewhere. In fact, the success of heat pumps in Scandinavian countries has shown the technology has major potential in chillier locales. And in older cities like New York—where over half of multifamily housing units are more than 80 years old—overhauling HVAC systems while making them more energy efficient is a must-do initiative. The same goes for broad swaths of the South and Southwest, where heat can have dangerous impacts on human health. But as the June heat wave that scorched the Northwest shows, even traditionally cooler places are going to need to be ready to beat the heat.
2. Make Greener Apartments (and Buildings)
The black tar rooftops of many older buildings contribute to worsening the heat island effect in cities. An undulating expanse of tar is also hardly an inviting environment to congregate on. Some newer buildings have roof decks, but these can’t be relegated solely to upscale developments. We need welcoming roof decks for the people.
Green roofs come with multiple benefits. Adding shade to a roof can make it a more enjoyable space for people to hang out than your standard black tarmac while also cooling down the surrounding environment by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 degrees Celsius). As with open streets, roof decks for all could also ensure that people have places to gather outdoors, lowering the risk of disease transmission.
3. Kick Fossil Fuels, Including Your Gas Stove
Besides heating and cooling, gas stoves are among the worst climate culprits in apartments. They’re also major sources of indoor air pollution. Nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde all spew from them, and these pollutants then tend to sit in your apartment unless you use a ventilation hood. (Even then, some hoods just recirculate air, rather than moving it outside.) Nitrogen dioxide has been shown to heighten the risk of asthma in children, as well as other respiratory issues and even some neurological ones.
Gas stoves also perpetuate the climate crisis. Continuing to use them in new construction, let alone allowing them to exist in older buildings, could lock in decades of more climate-damaging emissions.
Some cities and states have moved to ban new gas hookups for buildings, with California leading the way. The gas industry and some conservative lawmakers are fighting to ban the bans. But the reality is we need to move in the opposite direction. It’s not enough to ban hookups for new buildings, since older apartments are the lion’s share of the units currently in existence. We need to retrofit them for electric and induction stoves.
4. Make Homes Healthier
Having cleaner spaces to live in—and now work from—could be an integral part of future housing plans. “Cleaner” in this case means everything from surfaces to air filtration systems, the latter of which are also increasingly important in areas choked with wildfire smoke. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests actions like opening windows or running air conditioners to keep airflow moving—nothing spectacular as far as futuristic thinking goes. But the pandemic has especially reminded us of the importance of proper ventilation. Even when you’re not worried about hazardous aerosols (pollutant or infectious), it pays to have consistent fresh air.
What does this actually look like? More outdoor space, either attached to units or shared spaces in the building. Appliances that are energy efficient and safe should become the norm as we phase out inefficient and unhealthy appliances of the past. VRF units will quiet the work of regulating your home’s temperature and will make an easier purchase than buying and installing a different air conditioning unit in every room you plan to use during the warmer months. There are plenty of Jetsonian visions for exactly what this future looks like, but by starting with the health and energy needs of residents, design (hopefully) will follow.
Though we know covid-19 is airborne, the next emergent disease might not be. Instead, it could live on surfaces. (There’s certainly some hygiene theater still happening around covid-19, despite the risk of surface transmission being low.) The pandemic has awoken architects and developers to that risk and apartment dwellers’ preferences, and we could see more contactless technology appearing in the apartments of the next decade. Some trends die hard, but more cautious living standards may not be one of them.
“Touchless is huge now, and I don’t see that going away,” said Paula Munger, the associate vice president of industry research and analysis at the National Apartment Association. “The sort of sanitizing and cleaning that started during this pandemic is going to stick, and if you’re an owner investing in touchless technology now, that’s something you want to keep going.”
5. Make Housing More Affordable
There has never been a greater need for more affordable housing. Plenty of units sit unoccupied with high rents few can afford, while empty apartments with low rent are taken off the market as landlords wait for rents to rise. It’s tough to know exactly how many unhoused people live in the U.S., but New York City is a microcosm of the problem cities face. The Coalition for the Homeless said more than 50,000 New Yorkers slept in the city’s shelter system in April. Meanwhile, luxury real estate sales are booming in the city, with a $170 million listing on Manhattan’s Billionaire’s Row just in late June.
While homeownership offers wealth-building opportunities (and could help close the racial wealth gap), fewer and fewer Americans are able to afford it. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, rent-burdened families are increasing in number.
“Unless there is truly a national commitment to, let’s say, new, affordably priced housing for lower-income people, the future is grim,” said Nicholas Bloom, an urban planner and housing expert at Hunter College. “Overcrowding is the future, just as it is today.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. According to NMHC and NAA data, 328,000 apartments need to be constructed every year in order to meet American housing demands through 2030. Every one of those apartments is an opportunity to do things better. But those apartments also depend on things like lumber for their construction, a resource recently in short supply.
“It was already hard to build before the pandemic, and then now you have this issue of real costs getting even higher, and now you can’t even get supplies,” said Caitlin Sugrue Walter, vice president of research at the NMHC and an expert on apartment housing trends. “What does that do to the overall ability to build at a variety of price points?”
New apartments are being built across the country. But as Bloom said, more of that housing needs to be accessible to those most in need. Proposals like the Green New Deal for Public Housing seek to upgrade current public housing units and transition the public housing stock to carbon-neutral facilities. The Homes For All Act came on the heels of the aforementioned proposal and seeks to go even further in building affordable, efficient rental units for Americans. The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act was another suggested bill, which some argued would create more affordable units for people. Enough luxury residents are being built that wealthier folks seeking a home have plenty of choices. Some of these issues are up to developers. Some require the government to see through. Little is actually up to people who want to live in an apartment, outside of continuing to advocate for changes. But sweeping government legislation will probably be necessary to ensure that homes for all Americans are not only built, but built to last in a brighter future.
6. Build Apartments for Pedestrians
To envision the apartment of 2030, you need to think about what’s around them and how to navigate that space. The home is really just your private annex of the city. By having a home in a city, you are making a commitment to that community—at the very least tax-wise—and apartments offer a greater immediacy to joining the throngs of people that live above, below, and around you. Cities would do well to make residents feel more at home in their cities, rather than just at home in their apartments.
Since the mid-20th century, cities have largely been built for cars. What Americans want now, though, is changing. Notwithstanding the pandemic exoduses, which saw many wealthy people fleeing to second homes outside of dense cities as well as non-wealthy people seeking more affordable options given the pandemic’s economic impacts, way more of us are living in cities now than in suburbs. In a growing number of places, that means there’s a critical mass of people and a critical need to figure out how to help them get around. Relying on personal vehicles alone would be a disaster, both because of traffic and its impact on the climate. That means cities need to think about life beyond cars, whether it be Houston or Boston.
For the last 40 years, Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Studies has put out a survey that takes stock of the preferences of Houston’s now 2.2 million residents. In the survey’s most recent data, one sees the story of America: shifting demographics and desires, growing awareness and desire to address climate change, and a consistent plurality of respondents saying that traffic is the biggest problem facing their city today.
“We’re a different folk today than we were when we went out and built the sprawling metropolis and had the concept of the suburban life as the ideal life,” said Steven Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University and founding director of the Kinder Institute.
A recent National Multifamily Housing Council survey found that 71% of respondents wouldn’t rent without secure parking guarantees, and 88% said secure parking was important in deciding where to rent. While it’s likely that some respondents simply love to drive (I’m assuming they don’t just love to park for parking’s sake) and some have to due to disabilities or other physical limitations that our public transit doesn’t do a good enough job of addressing, it’s worth considering whether accommodations for drivers are desired by renters or seen as necessities due to the infrastructure built around them. Klineberg noted that “we’ve inherited a way of thinking about the built environment that made sense for the Baby Boom period—the quarter-century after World War II—that makes less and less sense today.”
This goes beyond just one city, too. In NMHC’s Disruption report, Niles Bolton, principal of Niles Bolton Associates, an Atlanta-based design firm, said some cities are finally considering limits on parking spaces afforded to developers. Those cities, Bolton said, “are finally becoming aware they don’t need all this parking,” but “lending institutions still don’t think you can rent without a parking space or two per unit.”
A mix of policy and personal decisions could help transform our relationship with cars and cities. That includes drivers making smarter use of their cars and a significant federal investment in public transportation. In addition, there’s a major need for funding for infrastructure for personal transportation that isn’t a car, including bikes, scooters, e-bikes, and other ways of getting around. Funding protected bike lanes rather than new roads for cars could make the city-as-home easier to navigate carbon-free.
There’s also something to be said for building city streets for pedestrian life rather than vehicular life. In recent years, there’s been buzz about American superblocks, emulating the localized street reclamation program so successfully deployed in Barcelona, which is also stepping up its urban greening plan to combat the city’s urban heat island. Superblocks are self-contained mini-grids in Barcelona’s streets, bordered by roads with normal vehicular traffic. Within their bounds, vehicular traffic is restricted to local traffic, and cars must obey significantly lower speed limits. One intersection was transformed into playgrounds and a mini soccer field in 2016. Picnic tables and greenery have sprung up in others. The superblocks’ implementation was met with some pushback, but they have fostered a more residential feel in the areas they’ve been established and reduced noise pollution throughout the city.
Before the pandemic, Seattle was mulling over a similar transformation; now, with nearly half of Americans fully vaccinated against covid-19, that talk is coming back in cities like Boston. Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, among many other cities, have open street days, but a superblock would make such a practice permanent—similar to how New York has made some open streets permanent following their success during the coronavirus pandemic. These approaches would make the public spaces of a city more accessible and pleasant, expanding our definition of what home truly is.
You open your eyes. It’s a Saturday morning in July 2030, and rays of light are spilling across your bedspread. Your apartment is nice and cool thanks to your VRF system (your old AC rattled annoying, you vaguely remember). You fry up an egg on your induction stove, pondering the errands you need to run before the BBQ you’ve planned on your roof that night with friends who live two floors below. The noise of kids playing while darting between trees on the street below bubbles up; they haven’t had to worry about cars since the local superblock was put in place. Birds chirp outside, no longer drowned out by the fracas of irritable drivers. Turns out the good life does exist; we just needed to build it.