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Massachusetts Is Modifying Triple-Deckers To Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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President Biden's sprawling infrastructure proposal is likely to include money for energy efficiency. Buildings account for about 12% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing that, especially in old buildings, can be cumbersome and costly. Simon Rios of member station WBUR reports on a push to do that in Massachusetts.

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SIMON RIOS, BYLINE: The triple-decker is quintessential New England - a big box of a building with three identical units and a porch on each floor. They started taking off around the turn of the 20th century, housing immigrants, blue-collar workers and more recently, hipsters. This massive fire-damaged building in Worcester, Mass., is now undergoing a retrofit.

UNIDENTIFIED CONTRACTOR: Monday is our day to close in the walls.

RIOS: A contractor debriefs developer Taylor Bearden on his latest triple-decker retrofit. They were built with little consideration for conserving heat.

TAYLOR BEARDEN: We sometimes find shredded newspaper in the walls, which has settled over time, which, of course, is interesting because you wind up reading newspaper advertisements from the '20s. But it doesn't do a very good job of actually keeping your building warm.

RIOS: But Bearden says this kind of building is ideal for retrofitting, more than many single-family homes. Bearden's business model is to convert old buildings into energy-efficient, safe and affordable homes. That means creating an airtight building, insulating and updating HVAC systems, and it's worked for four years. But now, Bearden says it's no longer feasible to do it while charging reasonable rents. That's because, like in many cities across the country, the price of property in Worcester has gone through the roof.

BEARDEN: As a case study, we were successful. But the only way, I think, to replicate this is if we could bring the basis back down on all these buildings, take away that inflationary speculation that has occurred.

RIOS: Nationwide, more than 6 million apartments are in structures with two to four units. They provide what's considered naturally affordable housing, but now these buildings have a significance to the climate. Officials in Massachusetts say to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, as the state has set out to do, small residential buildings have to be retrofitted on a sector-wide scale. Steve Pike, head of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, says the pace of retrofitting needs to pick up exponentially.

STEVE PIKE: At this point, we're probably doing a couple thousand a year to a 2050 standard. You can do the quick math. We need to be doing roughly 100,000 homes a year. And so where do you start with that?

RIOS: The state started with the triple-decker and recently created a design challenge for help envisioning cost-effective ways to do retrofits. But Doug Quattrochi of the group MassLandlords says even with the most feasible retrofit plans, the price tags are still out of reach for most owners.

DOUG QUATTROCHI: You still have a lot of landlords who are thinking, well, why would I put that into energy when that amount of money would buy me a new kitchen or a new kitchen and a bathroom and I'd able to charge higher rents for that and get a return on my investment when the energy improvements are going to be benefiting the renter who pays the utility bills?

RIOS: That's why Quattrochi says the road to carbon-neutral housing needs to be paved with billions in subsidies. And that's just in Massachusetts. One bill in the state legislature seeks to retrofit a million homes over 10 years, and President Joe Biden has said he wants to go big on retrofitting homes too. But there's still no concrete plan for how to do it or how to pay for it.

For NPR News, I'm Simon Rios in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LIMINANAS' "(I'VE GOT) TROUBLE IN MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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