c. Green Retrofits

Blue Collar Jobs for a Green Economy

This section focuses on industries that help develop a homegrown “Green Economy.” The green economy should develop from a lens of environmental justice (in particular, that all development should reduce pollution to local communities and develop healthy opportunities), not just lowering emissions. The approach to lowering San Francisco’s carbon footprint needs to emphasize a reduction in long-chain imports, and creating more resilient systems for self-reliance.

Green and Safe Retrofits

We propose that the City commit to the comprehensive retrofit of 100% of San Francisco’s existing multifamily and rental housing units by the year 2020. We envision a coordinated city-scale strategy that would address both energy efficiency and seismic safety in multifamily buildings. A well-planned approach would help meet the City’s ambitious environmental goals, strengthen the local economy, and improve the affordability, health, and safety of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

The goal of retrofitting all of San Francisco’s rental housing stock over the next decade is both necessary and in line with numerous local policy initiatives.[i] San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan calls for deep improvements in energy efficiency and the City already has numerous efforts underway to encourage and finance green retrofits across a variety of different building types.[ii] However, the current programs lack an explicit focus on rental housing—where 2/3 of the City’s population lives. Meanwhile, the Mayor and other elected leaders have expressed interest in developing mandatory seismic retrofit requirements for vulnerable “soft-story buildings”, to address the likelihood of a major earthquake in the next 20 years. San Francisco should recognize the compatibility of seismic and green retrofit policy goals, and should promote the retrofit of the City’s rental buildings as an economic opportunity with tremendous local job creation and community development potential. At a time when the outlook for new construction has been greatly cut back, a coordinated focus on improving existing buildings seems especially timely. Green retrofits in existing buildings are an opportunity for San Francisco to create jobs across the socioeconomic spectrum by leveraging its strengths in green building, energy efficiency, and finance. However, the City’s progressive environmental policies are often disconnected from its economic development goals, and have therefore missed out on many opportunities for innovation in this area.[iii] To be most effective, a building retrofit strategy must aim to be more equitable in its goals, more comprehensive in scope, more coordinated in approach, much larger and more ambitious in scale, and must target changes at the community and neighborhood level rather than individual units.

1. Implement an ambitious citywide retrofit program to provide seismic and energy efficiency retrofits of 100% of San Francisco’s existing multifamily and rental housing units within the next decade.

Ambitious Scale: The scale of the programs currently under discussion is not ambitious enough to meet the necessary targets for energy efficiency or earthquake safety, not to mention the achievable potential for job creation and impacts on the local economy. The goal of retrofitting 100% of San Francisco’s rental housing over the next decade is realistic and in line with the recommendations of the CPUC,[iv] but only if the City makes a concerted effort to reach this goal and establishes accountability among the various departments involved.

2. Retrofit programs must prioritize San Francisco residents most affected by energy costs, in particular renters and low-income homeowners.

The Mayor’s Task Force on Existing Commercial Buildings recently recommended that the City aim to reduce energy consumption in commercial buildings by 50% by 2030.[v] Total energy use in San Francisco’s residential buildings is virtually identical to the total consumption in the commercial sector, but while the City has begun to focus on the residential sector, San Francisco’s 214,000 rental units are receiving comparatively little attention in the current discussions about energy efficient retrofits. The City has recently unveiled GreenFinanceSF, a program that will hopefully encourage homeowners to upgrade their properties using an upfront payment by the City that is paid back over time through a small increase in participants’ property taxes.[vi] While this program might help provide incentives for homeowners, it does very little to address the needs of landlords or tenants in multifamily buildings and rentals.

In a City where renters comprise the overwhelming majority of residents, any retrofit program must seize the opportunity to improve the health, safety, affordability, and efficiency of the bulk of the housing stock. San Francisco must prioritize the retrofit of multifamily and rental buildings as it designs financing mechanisms and outreach strategies, since programs that help higher income homeowners will continue to exacerbate existing inequalities. Assuming a portion of the cost savings from energy improvements are passed on to renters, a citywide retrofit program would help maintain housing affordability for the City’s residents by reducing monthly expenses and helping control the effects of future energy cost increases. Landlords would benefit through reduced operating expenses, more secure buildings, and increased property values. Seismic improvement programs must also be designed to avoid passing on the cost of improvements to renters. All types of retrofits must include safeguards to avoid unnecessary tenant displacement during or after construction.

3. Retrofit programs must prioritize low-income communities and communities which have the greatest health disparities, particularly San Francisco’s southeast neighborhoods.

In addition to a focus on renters, the City must also add a community equity goal to its building retrofit programs. All funding for programs to help meet San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions goals should also be directed to meet the affordability, employment, and environmental health needs of the City’s low-income neighborhoods. For instance, neighborhoods in southeast San Francisco are at high risk from elevated levels of asthma and respiratory illnesses, habitability issues due to lead hazards and mold in housing, air polluting facilities, facilities that handle hazardous materials, diesel backup generators and gas stations, auto body and auto repair shops, as well as traffic-related air pollution from the Interstate 101 and 280 freeways and other heavily traveled roads. Retrofit efforts in the City’s residential housing should be leveraged to mitigate these historic and inequitable health impacts in southeast San Francisco.

This strategy should also apply to public facility retrofits. The City should specifically target energy and seismic improvements to community facilities that serve low-income neighborhoods most needing these funds—including schools, recreation centers, health clinics, and libraries. [vii]

4. Greening programs must ensure jobs and other economic benefits that benefit low-income San Francisco residents in targeted environmental justice communities.

While energy efficiency, health, and seismic safety are themselves important direct benefits, any large-scale building retrofit program should also focus on the potential economic benefits to low and moderate income San Franciscans in terms of local job creation and business opportunities. The City must work to craft workforce development programs that ensure adequate training and job standards in retrofit work, as well as opportunities for local small businesses and entrepreneurs to actively participate. The program funding can be tied to having the City assist worker cooperatives under the auspices on non-profit organizations, such as the Day Labor Program of La Raza Centro Legal, to do the retrofit work and assist building owners and renters in taking advantage of federal tax rebates for energy efficiency retrofits. Worker cooperatives could be prioritized to access paid job training and jobs, and may be able to expand the benefits of these programs to the city’s immigrant workers organized in cooperatives.

5. Retrofit programs must have a comprehensive scope, interdepartmental coordination, and evaluation criteria to achieve maximum impact.

San Francisco’s aging rental housing stock needs improvements in both energy efficiency and seismic resilience, and tackling both problems together seems essential. Yet well-conceived retrofits can also offer many additional benefits. A green retrofit program should be linked to existing SFPUC programs to reduce unnecessary water use. A comprehensive retrofit would also leverage the work of the Department of Public Health to address indoor environmental quality issues such as lead paint, chemical exposure, and other hazards. A wider focus on green construction in existing buildings could also help related economic sectors such as the recycling and reuse industry (See Recycling and Reuse topic below). Ideally, the outreach and organizing process involved in achieving retrofits of individual homes would also be linked to wider neighborhood environmental health and greening efforts (See Food and Urban Agriculture, below). Multifamily building retrofits should also be seen as a housing preservation strategy, tied to MOH’s goal of acquiring and rehabbing buildings and the City’s related goals of maintaining vacant and deteriorating structures.

The current efforts to promote energy efficiency and seismic safety are scattered across numerous City departments, without strategic oversight or effective collaboration. A rental housing retrofit program should be one component of a well-organized City retrofit effort. This effort should combine the diverse departmental expertise related to current retrofit programs (SFE, SFPUC, MOH), inspection and enforcement (DBI, DPH), and economic development (OEWD). These agencies should all be coordinating to develop unified strategies for mandates, incentives, financing, and outreach. As recommended by SPUR, existing mandates such as the City’s Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance (RECO) should be significantly updated and strengthened[viii] and new mandates for seismic retrofits should be established. These departments must share baseline data and report together on progress toward goals.

6. The City’s retrofit programs should work at community and neighborhood levels to achieve economies of scale.

An ambitious 10-year retrofit program could focus on retrofitting entire neighborhoods rather than individual buildings. Redirecting funding to retrofits at a community level, targeting low-income neighborhoods, is not only more equitable but also brings added efficiencies of scale. This could mean, for example, that a contract could be established to retrofit a number of buildings on one street, at significant cost savings. Focusing at a neighborhood scale would also allow the City to address the range of neighborhood retrofits that is really needed in our communities, As discussed in the Comprehensive Scope section above, this could include indoor health improvements around mold/lead/asbestos, structural improvements for poorly maintained buildings, water conservation and green stormwater systems, improved broadband access, or even starting to address food security issues.[ix] By leveraging a variety of resources on targeted neighborhoods, various aspects of needed retrofits can be done at once. Effective community organizing strategies that focused on defined neighborhoods each year could maximize construction efficiencies and resident participation. Outreach for a rental retrofit program could be also combined with other related efforts, such as the City’s emerging CleanPowerSF (CCA) outreach process.


[i] The California Public Utilities Commission’s Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan (September 2008) recommends that by 2020, energy use be reduced in 100% of existing homes by an average of 40%, and this seems like a reasonable goal for San Francisco.

[ii] For instance, the Department of the Environment operates several energy efficiency programs along with PG&E. The SFPUC has worked for years on energy efficiency in municipal buildings. The Mayor’s Task Force on Existing Commercial Buildings recently released a number of ambitious suggestions. The City hopes to launch a new retrofit loan program seeded with several million dollars of federal funds and is discussing municipal financing of retrofits including a small pilot program for subsidized housing.

[iii] Terplon, Egon and ICF International. “Growing Green: How San Francisco can become a leader in the cleantech boom.” SPUR Urbanist. Issue 475. September 2008. Downloaded January 10, 2010 from http://spur.org/publications/library/report/growinggreen_090108

[iv] California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan. California Public Utilities Commission. September 2008. Downloaded January 10, 2010 from www.californiaenergyeffiency.com

[v] Mayor’s Task Force on Existing Commercial Buildings. Final Report and Recommendations for the City and County of San Francisco. December 2009. Downloaded January 10, 2010 from http://www.sfenvironment.org/downloads/library/sf_existing_commercial_buildings_task_force_report_1.0.pdf

[vi] See greenfinancesf.org for a description of the program, which establishes a citywide Mello-Roos Special Tax District to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades.

[vii] For example, see the 2009 ordinance establishing a green retrofit program for municipal buildings in Los Angeles, supported by the LA Apollo Alliance (http://www.scopela.org/)

[viii] Tam, Laura, et al. Critical Cooling. SPUR Policy report adopted February 18, 2009. Downloaded January 10, 2010 from http://www.spur.org/publications/library/report/critical_cooling/option1

[ix] see MIT report for Mothers on the Move, New York.

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