Building the future: Evanston aims to lower building emissions through community collaborations


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson.

From supporting homeowners’ sustainable retrofitting projects to constructing electric-powered ADUs, Evanston organizations are working to make the city’s building stock more environmentally friendly.

Ava Mandoli, Senior Staffer

The overwhelming majority of Evanston’s greenhouse gas emissions do not come from what residents drive, eat or buy. Instead, it comes from where they live and work.

In the 2018 Climate Action and Resilience Plan, City Council reported that 80% of the city’s emissions came from residential and commercial buildings –– 44% from electricity and 36% from natural gas.

The city’s Environment Board, community groups like Citizens’ Greener Evanston and local construction firms are all working to chip away at building emissions. But coordination and communication between the many apparatuses is an ongoing challenge. 

The Evanston Development Cooperative said accessory dwelling units offer a solution to reducing total building emissions that will simultaneously create more affordable housing options.

ADUs can be standalone units, converted garages or even part of an existing home. According to EDC co-founder Robbie Markus (Communication ‘19), ADUs are a minimally disruptive way to increase affordable housing options in low-density neighborhoods.

Restrictive zoning laws have hindered some communities’ access to ADU construction. In Evanston, duplexes were not eligible to have ADUs until September 2020. EDC found that most duplexes are in West Evanston in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods.

“This was inherently a race issue. It was locking a certain part of the city out from this opportunity to build generational wealth,” Markus said. 

According to EDC, equitable zoning is essential to ensuring all Evanston residents can access affordable housing. After years of advocacy by the organization, the city passed a new zoning ordinance in September 2020 that greatly expanded opportunities for ADU construction.

However, the bulk of Evanston’s building emissions comes from previously-existing housing stock. Henry Love, senior director of municipal and community programs at Chicago-based nonprofit Elevate, said helping communities affordably renovate decades-old buildings is Elevate’s main goal.

“If you are increasing their cost of utilities, you are not really meeting that nexus of climate and equity benefits. [We] try to make sure that we’re solving for both at the same time,” Love said. 

But encouraging community members to renovate their homes is difficult when retrofitting can be dizzyingly complex. 

Each improvement, from weatherization to electrification to solar, is typically completed by different organizations in Evanston.

“[Homeowners] have to reach out to three different agencies, go through three different application processes and schedule three different visits,” Love said, “and that’s all put on top of somebody who has limited resources and time already.”

Evanston is partnering with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Elevate and the EDC to create the “One Stop Shop for Affordable, Resilient Net-Zero Homes” initiative.

In July, City Council approved the allocation of $1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act Fund to fund a two-year pilot program that will help 50 interested homeowners sustainably retrofit their homes.

The One Stop Shop is an equity-centered program that emphasizes serving low to moderate-income Black and Latine residents, according to a memorandum sent by Evanston Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt to City Council. 

As deliberations for the city’s 2023 budget approach, Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) said the city may fund two additional positions in the Office of Sustainability. 

One position would be dedicated to helping sustainability-oriented community organizations work together more effectively and obtain feedback from residents. The other position would be focused on following up on Evanston’s 2016 benchmarking ordinance, which requires building owners to annually report their energy and water usage to a national Environmental Protection Agency database.

“We [want to] move beyond just the data collection to actually make some changes that will reduce energy emissions,” Revelle said.

CARP aims to secure a 100% renewable electricity supply by 2030 and make Evanston carbon-neutral by 2050. The goal is for the $1 million dedicated to the One Stop Shop to be just the beginning, not the end, Love said. 

“[We need to] build an infrastructure for climate-resilient retrofitting in the community. With the pilot, the goal is [to retrofit] up to 50 units. But that’s peanuts compared to the scale of the problem,” Love said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ava_mandoli 

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