The future of urban housing is energy-efficient refrigerators

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The scars and pockmarks of the aging apartments and housing units under the purview of the New York City Housing Authority don’t immediately communicate the idea of innovation. The largest landlord in the city, housing nearly 1 in 16 New Yorkers, NYCHA has seen its buildings literally crumble after decades of deferred maintenance and poor stewardship.

Just as the physical infrastructure has broken down, leading to busted elevators, picked-apart playgrounds, and crumbling façades, the agency has weathered a series of scandals in recent years over mold infestations and faked lead inspections. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 just added to the toll, flooding electrical and heating systems located in building basements. All told, this forsaken subsidized housing is in the midst of what local planners have called “demolition by neglect.” It would require an estimated $40 billion or more, at least $180,000 per unit, to return the buildings to a state of good repair.

Years ago, there was evidence of innovation hidden inside these units—in the kitchens. By the late ’90s, NYCHA realized that the existing fridges in many units were basically “gas guzzlers”—hugely inefficient, aging, and costly to the agency, which pays tenants’ electricity bills. In a collaboration with the local utility, NYCHA held a contest for appliance manufacturers, asking them to create smaller, apartment-size units with superior efficiency; the winner would gain access to NYCHA and a cadre of other housing authorities interested in a purchase plan of at least 20,000 annually. Maytag won, with its then-novel Magic Chef model, which helped NYCHA cut costs by increasing energy efficiency—and also slashed emissions. Ultimately, 150,000 of the fridges were purchased between 1995 and 2003. It was a model of using the agency’s heft and market power to drive innovation. 

Now NYCHA wants to do the same with heating and cooling. The Clean Heat for All Challenge is asking manufacturers to develop low-cost, easy-to-install heat-pump technologies for buildi...

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