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Why 22 City Councilmembers Want to Gut the City’s Landmark Climate Law

“It would be an enormous step back globally if the council passed that bill, or any version of it."

(Joel Raskin / wikicommons)

Legislation introduced in the City Council last week would weaken the City’s landmark climate law requiring large buildings to decarbonize—further delaying penalties and raising emissions limits for thousands of buildings. 

The bill's sponsor, Queens Councilmember Linda Lee, says her legislation would give relief to co-op and condo owners slammed by the cost of cutting emissions. Environmental advocates, however, say it would effectively gut the groundbreaking climate law, known as Local Law 97. Lee and Queens Councilmember Sandra Ung introduced a previous version of the bill last fall, but it never advanced before that City Council left office and was replaced by a new one at the beginning of this year. 

Under Local Law 97, large buildings are required to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Fines for failing to hit more modest short-term emissions targets were supposed to kick in this year, but at the end of last year, the Department of Buildings pushed back the implementation of those fines for two years for buildings that have shown a "good faith effort" to comply. 

Under Lee's bill, introduced on Thursday, co-ops and condos would be allowed to count their gardens and green spaces as part of their building's square footage when calculating emissions limits—effectively hiking the amount of carbon they're allowed to put out.

Co-op and condo buildings where the average per-unit assessed value—a percentage of market value used to calculate property taxes—is under $65,000 would be spared fines entirely through 2035. Their fines would be cut in half from 2036 through 2040 and reduced by 25 percent from 2041 through 2045. The bill would also allow emissions limits to be adjusted if a condo or co-op building has installed solar panels, converted from oil to gas, or installed utility meters in individual apartments.

Lee's legislation has already netted 22 sponsors, nearing a majority of the City Council.

"Climate change is real and an existential threat. Environmental mandates are important. But Local Law 97's financial penalties for co-ops and condos, their schedule, and the costs of green upgrades threaten to snuff out some of the last pockets of affordable and middle-class housing in an increasingly rent-burdened city," Lee said in a statement to Hell Gate. 

To Pete Sikora, the climate campaign director at New York Communities for Change, this bill is "a really cynical collection of huge loopholes written by the real estate lobby to gut Local Law 97." It would be "maniacally crazy" to allow courtyards and backyards to count as part of a building for emissions purposes, Sikora said. 

"It would be an enormous step back globally if the council passed that bill, or any version of it," Sikora added. 

Lee said the bill is narrowly tailored to co-op and condos, who make up 10 percent of the 50,000 buildings covered by Local Law 97. "Those accusations simply don't hold water,” she said of advocates' claims. "My legislation leaves [about] 90 percent of buildings covered by Local Law 97 as is." Her office estimated that about 30 percent of co-op and condo buildings would be covered by the assessment exemption. (A $65,000 assessment roughly translates to a market-rate value of $350,000 per unit.) Sikora, however, estimated that a majority of co-op and condo buildings would be covered.

According to Lee, middle-class homeowners, who fund their buildings' operations through monthly fees, have already been hit by rising costs and face an average bill of $25,000 per household to comply. "NYC's environmental movement is now at risk of appearing out-of-touch with ordinary New Yorkers because of this one-size-fits-all mandate. If this continues, we could end up with serious and widespread resistance to City Hall's attempts at climate progress. That should be a serious concern for all of us," she said.

Climate advocates said any move to weaken the law would be a slippery slope.

"The biggest threat is the signal it sends to the real estate industry that we're willing to cave into their demands. It sends the wrong signal, the completely wrong signal, to the nation and the rest of the world that we're backing away," said Eric Weltman, a senior organizer at Food & Water Watch. 

Weltman said it would be better for the government to offer financial assistance to help building owners who need it to comply, rather than loosening requirements. "This is not the time to be taking a step back from our commitment to moving New York off fossil fuels," he said.

Outerborough co-op owners have packed a series of recent town halls to complain about the costs of the law, and pushed their elected officials to find a way to blunt the impact. A lawsuit filed by two Queens co-ops and an LLC to stop the emissions law was thrown out in November

Backers of Local Law 97 sought to ease those fears with their own town hall Thursday night in Queens, at the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills, countering what they call a fearmongering campaign backed by the real estate lobby.

Nearly 90 percent of buildings are already in compliance with emissions limits that take effect this year, but most have a ways to go to hit stricter targets in 2030.

Panelists at the town hall, which was organized by New York Communities for Change, told a few dozen residents that there were ways to meet the law's requirements without breaking the bank, while lowering energy bills in the long run.

Michael Parrella, a Jackson Heights co-op board president and architectural consultant, said his building has gotten into compliance with measures like switching out lightbulbs for LEDs and replacing the boiler. In the process, they cut their heating bill in half. "If you're smart and strategize, fines are not a concern," he said.

Jon Pope, who runs a construction company in Brooklyn, recommended LED bulbs, low-flow shower heads, and making sure air conditioners are taken out in winter. "There's an awful lot of low-hanging fruit," he said, including replacing leaky windows. 

Richard Vagge, a long-time Jackson Heights resident, was skeptical. "I understand all the energy efficiencies and the clean energy and everything about that, but if co-ops and condos have a half a million dollar reserve, and it's $1.5 million [to comply], sure they can get a loan, but now they have to pay interest on the loan," he said. "If you're going to impact my life as a co-op or condo owner, is my car next? Is my toaster oven next? Is my refrigerator next? So the overreach, we have to be careful."

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams made an appearance to voice opposition to any rollbacks to the climate law. "Weakening it doesn't really help. It just prolongs it and makes it worse," he said. "We need to push to make sure that we don't weaken this law."

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