A proposal is moving through the State House to let Cambridge and several of Boston’s wealthiest suburbs ban natural gas use in new buildings. It’s the wrong idea at the wrong time and could hurt housing production where it’s needed most.  

The intent of the bill – Section 65 of the state Senate’s S.2842, for the curious – is to foster demonstration projects that show how the commercial real estate sector can get by without natural gas-powered cooking, heating and cooling systems. It’s an important goal. Residential and commercial buildings, after all, are responsible for a combined 27 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. And evidence is emerging that gas cooktops without hoods that vent to the outdoors may be serious health hazards. 

But the proposal on the table today doesn’t meet the moment. First, these bans could kick in as soon as 120 days after S.2842’s passage. That will force builders with projects deep into multi-year planning, design and permitting stages to make expensive design changes at a time when construction and design costs in the Boston area are already sky-high – between $185 and $315 per square foot for multifamily buildings, according to consulting firm Rider Levett Bucknall.  

Electrically-powered hot water heaters and HVAC equipment has come down significantly in price in the last few years, but it’s still expensive. A large apartment complex of 350 units would cost around $2 million more to convert to all-electric, a roughly 1.7 percent bump in hard costs in a city, or 2.2 percent in a suburb.  

The towns poised to implement natural gas bans are the same ones not building their fair share of housing.

Add this to the costs created by a sudden delay to redesign the building – property taxes and loans still have to be paid, regardless of whether a property is generating income – and it’s easy to see how this could sink many multifamily proposals, or force builders to shoot for the high end of the housing market. That’s hardly what we need right now. 

Approving these natural gas bans would pull the rug out from under developers and construction workers who rely on projects to earn a living. But they’re not all who would be hurt. By letting places like Cambridge (median condominium sale price so far this year: $900,000; median single-family sale price: $1.77 million) and Newton (median condo: $905,000; median single-family: $1.6 million) kill new housing developments within their borders, state legislators would be actively promoting economic and racial segregation by disallowing developments that are the only practical way to let less-privileged renters and buyers enter these tony towns.  

To boot, the towns poised to implement natural gas bans are the same ones not pulling their weight in building enough homes to house Massachusetts’ much-abused working families. 

Gas bans need to go back to the drawing board, especially with a new net-zero building code likely to go into effect later this year.  

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Don’t Let Towns Ban Gas Hook-Ups

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min