How NIMBY Anti-Density Policies Impede Heating Efficiency

Emily Badger reported the other day on a study looking at the difference in energy use between Minneapolis and Miami:

Minneapolis – just talking here about heating and cooling – is three-and-a-half times as energy demanding as Miami, a finding that will likely shock people there (or in Milwaukee or Buffalo) who’ve long prided themselves on life without A/C.

This does make some intuitive sense, given the temperature differentials involved. Just in terms of heat flow, it will be easier to move from 95 degrees to 70 than from 10 to 70. The only solution, as Matt Yglesias points out, is to improve weatherization and insulation. People have basically figured this out—check out the passivhaus energy standards, for example. Adding that kind of thing to a new home isn’t even that expensive anymore, and can easily pay for itself over the medium term.

So why doesn’t it happen? One reason is anti-density zoning policy.

I live in a ratty group house in northeast DC, built in 1908, and last remodeled (to generously estimate) in about 1960. It leaks like a sieve, the windows are lousy, it uses inefficient steam heat, and it’s poorly insulated. Turn off the heat and it’s at ambient air temperature inside of an hour.

Yet I live there because it’s relatively cheap. Rents are eyewateringly high in DC, and I’ll gladly take a drafty old place to economize. So a landlord (who doesn’t have to pay for the heating/cooling, remember) who would rather not go through the headache of hiring a contractor and buying a bunch of construction materials can just coast on crummy, inefficient heating for forty years and more.

If we had more housing, and rents were therefore lower, it would be harder to attract tenants to such a place, and landlords would be incentivized to fix up or replace their aging housing stock.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.