A large apartment building under construction near Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis. Updating construction codes for large, multifamily buildings would help lower emissions and energy burdens for Minnesotans of color, a new report found. Credit: Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

Minnesota lawmakers have an opportunity to improve living conditions for people of color and lower greenhouse gas emissions by updating building codes for multifamily housing, according to a new report. 

A coalition of housing and energy organizations is urging legislators to adopt new efficiency standards that would see all newly constructed large buildings reach net zero emissions by 2036. That means the structures would consume only as much energy as is produced onsite via energy production tools like solar panels. 

Such standards could have a major impact on people of color, who are more likely to live in large apartment complexes in Minnesota, the report found. The most affordable housing often is the least energy-efficient. Energy is often the second largest monthly expense for low-income renters, according to Metric Giles, executive director of the Community Stabilization Project, a St. Paul nonprofit that works to get and keep people housed. 

“My goal is to say to all the groups working on energy efficiency, ‘We have to get to the place where energy is declared a human right,’” Giles said.

“My goal is to say to all the groups working on energy efficiency, ‘We have to get to the place where energy is declared a human right.’”

Metric Giles of the Community Stabilization Project 

Giles and his organization joined a coalition of groups led by the Minnesota Housing Partnership to publish the report, “A Better Building Code: Recommendations for Increasing Housing Resilience and Racial Equity for Minnesota Renters.” The report seeks to bolster the Better Building Code bill, versions of which passed the Minnesota House in 2019 and 2021 but have yet to make it through the Senate. 

Updated standards for new buildings and investing in weatherization retrofits for aging ones, which often have drafty windows and poor insulation, would lower costs for renters and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas is the primary heating source for Minnesota buildings. And this winter, prices for natural gas are at a 10-year high, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  

“After the winter, most people are still trying to play catch up from their heating bills,” Giles said.

Minnesota’s current standards

Minnesota last updated its energy codes for commercial buildings, which includes residential structures four stories and taller, in 2020. Those standards are based on a code developed in 2018, said Ben Rabe, director of building performance for the Minnesota environmental policy nonprofit Fresh Energy. That may seem recent, but other states like Illinois and Michigan are doing better, he noted. 

“We’ve fallen to the middle of the pack,” Rabe said, adding that with improved standards, “On a societal level, the carbon emission reduction is huge.” 

The proposed Better Building Code bill would shift the state on a path to net-zero commercial buildings by 2036 by committing to a national code standard that is automatically updated every three years. 

If approved, the new standards would also apply to large-scale retrofits. The state needs more tools and funding to update existing buildings, Rabe said. He pointed to the ECO Act, a law passed last year that updated a statewide program requiring utilities to invest in energy efficiency savings, as a positive step in that direction. 

But without new funding from the state and federal governments, weatherization for existing multifamily housing remains an unmet need. 

Meanwhile, every new building constructed with outdated efficiency codes is one that will need to be retrofitted in the future, Rabe said. 

Disproportionate impact 

The Minnesota Housing Partnership began focusing on energy efficiency several years ago, according to executive director Elizabeth Glidden. The group wrote a letter of support for the law in 2021. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a collective fighting against housing discrimination, asked Minnesota Housing Partnership and its partners for a detailed report on the subject in the North Star State.* To conduct the report, Minnesota Housing Partnership, Community Stabilization Project, and others talked with renters, property owners, developers, and construction firms about the impacts of energy efficiency in their day-to-day lives. 

In the interviews, they heard how climate change and energy needs were affecting people inside and outside of their homes. The most frequent issue with renters was heat, Glidden said. 

“People talked about very cold conditions with their properties, [and about] space heater issues,” she said. 

“People talked about very cold conditions with their properties, [and about] space heater issues.”

Elizabeth Glidden of the Minnesota Housing Partnership

People who live in energy-inefficient housing often turn to potentially dangerous options like space heaters to keep warm. 

Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods face disproportionately higher energy burdens, the report found, meaning they’re more likely to pay more than 5 percent of their monthly income on utility bills.

“Anything that lessens energy burden will have a disproportionate impact on low-income families, families of color, and immigrant families,” Rabe said. 

Chances of passing

Representative Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, who is chair of the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee, said he is optimistic about the bill passing in 2022. 

Cities are interested in updating these standards, Long said. Minneapolis and St. Paul contributed to the report, and are pushing for the bill’s passage. 

“We know buildings are a huge percentage of climate impact within cities,” Long said. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from commercial buildings rose 32 percent between 2005 and 2018, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. That increase is imperiling the state’s efforts to meet its already dated emission reduction targets, set in 2007. 

This session, Long said he will focus on letting cities add their own “stretch codes,” allowing local governments to have higher standards than the state as a whole.

Any bill that comes out of the Democrat-led House faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Long cited last year’s passage of the ECO Act as a sign of hope. Parts of the better building code, and increased state funding for weatherization retrofits, is likely to be rolled into a larger energy omnibus bill that will be debated throughout the legislative session, he said.

*Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the National Community Investment Coalition, not state legislators, requested the report.

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...