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In what some call a ‘human rights issue,’ Baltimore trails other cities in adoption of ‘cool roofing'

Cool roofs work much like wearing a white shirt on a hot day, reflecting the visible, infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths from the sun.

In East Baltimore, home to neighborhoods with the hottest summer temperatures in the city, Saahil Panikar credits the white roof on his Butchers Hill rowhouse with how comfortable his home is year-round.

“I keep my thermostat on the lower level set at 72 degrees all year, and it never gets above 67 degrees on my second level,” he said.

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Nearby, in Patterson Park North, Jeff Riner said the silver coating on his roof keeps the second floor of his rowhouse 7 or 8 degrees cooler than the first floor.

And Todd and Elisha Coleman plan to build a deck atop their rowhouse after they have a white roof installed. “The black would obviously attract more sun and heat up quicker,” Todd Coleman said, “making the deck almost unusable during the daytime in summer.”

So-called cool roofs work much like wearing a white shirt on a hot day — a white coating or membrane reflects the visible infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths from the sun, making both the rooftop and the temperature inside the home cooler. The city Office of Sustainability has listed cool roofs in a series of reports as a strategy to help blunt the rising temperatures of climate change.

But where some cities have passed laws requiring cools roofs on new homes and older buildings that need roof repairs, Baltimore has not. A nonprofit organization’s program meant to encourage lower-income homeowners to use cool roofs has stalled.

Democratic City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who represents a section of Northeast Baltimore, believes that cool roofs are a “human rights issue.” Dorsey, who said he bikes often through East Baltimore, said the higher temperatures in that part of the city are noticeable.

“Everyone should have livable conditions and not be subjected to intense heat,” Dorsey said.

‘A key strategy’

Researchers have found that some cities have heat islands — areas heavy with pavement and light on trees where summer temperatures can run 8 degrees higher than other neighborhoods.

Households in those communities tend to have lower incomes. And the extreme temperatures affect residents’ health.

When city planning officials list actions to deal with climate change, cool roofs are included. In Baltimore’s 2013 Climate Action Plan, cool roofing was labeled a key strategy for mitigating greenhouse emissions.

“A cool roof can lower the second-floor temperature of a home by as much as 5 degrees,” assuming that is the floor beneath the attic, said Kurt Shickman, executive director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance in Washington.

“Residents with cool roofs will require less use of air conditioning,” Shickman said, “lowering their electrical usage on days of extreme heat and decreasing the amount paid in electrical bills,” as well as lowering outdoor air temperatures.

About 100 miles north, in Philadelphia — another mid-Atlantic city anchored by rowhouses — the installation of cool roofs has been mandated by law since 2010.

Christine Knapp, director of the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability, said the law passed without much of a fight.

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“I don’t really think there was much opposition to it, because it just kind of made sense,” Knapp said.

New York City enacted a cool roof ordinance in 2011, following the creation of a program in 2009 that offers no-cost and low-cost cool roof installations for existing buildings.

Los Angeles, which passed a similar law in 2014, has given out more than $1.8 million in cool roof rebates since 2013, according to staff in the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat.

A 2013 report by The Abell Foundation said Baltimore’s first cool roof was installed on a Charles Village rowhouse in 1981. By 2013, the Abell report said, the city had hundreds of cool roofs, as well as state funds for subsidies. The foundation urged the city to pass a law like Philadelphia’s or New York’s to require cool roofs.

The Baltimore City Council has not considered a bill to require cool roofs. The city Department of Legislative Reference, a library of past legislation, found nothing on the topic.

Democratic Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who served as council president for nine years and as a council member for 15, said she does not recall any conversation a legislation for cool roofing during her time on the council.

“Any cool roof initiative would have to be a voluntary program or a voluntary initiative, not a law,” Clarke said.

Nor does the city offer subsidies specifically for cool roofing, said Alice Kennedy, deputy commissioner at the city Department of Housing & Community Development. There are no incentives for landlords or roofers to install cool roofs, either, Kennedy said.

She added that cool roof installations are often used in several of Baltimore’s other housing improvement programs, such as weatherization and lead hazard reduction programs.

“In the process of weatherization and renovation, if the roof needs to be replaced, we replace it with a cool roof, and this occurs 95 to 98% of the time,” Kennedy said.

Civic Works, a nonprofit organization affiliated with AmeriCorps, has been offering subsidies for energy efficiency work, including cool roofs, through its EnergyReady program.

When energy companies Exelon and Constellation merged in 2012, the state Public Service Commission ordered the companies to set aside $112 million for consumer programs. In 2017, the Public Service Commission ordered $50,000 remaining from those 2012 funds to be used for cool roofs in the city.

Eli Allen, director of the Center for Sustainable Careers at Civic Works, said Civic Works used that money to install 155 cool roofs.

Beyond the merger money allocated to the city, Allen said cool roofing has not been widely recognized by state and federal authorities as relevant to weatherization.

“There’s federal and utilities funding for energy efficiency weatherization measures, but currently cool roofing doesn’t fall within allowable energy efficiency categories,” Allen said. “It doesn’t qualify for that sort of funding.”

And now, a year after the merger money ran out, Allen said they have put their cool roofing efforts on pause. He said that finding funding for their cool roofing program, from government or private sources, has been a constant struggle. Allen said he hopes the program returns in 2020, but added that if it does, it will only be for customers who can pay for the service.

Back in Butchers Hill, not far from the homes where Panikar, Riner and many others are enjoying the benefits of a cool roof, their neighbor Shevon Kaintuck rents a rowhouse with a black tar roof.

In the summer, Kaintuck said, “the heat on my third floor of my home is unbearable.”

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