Mitigate Housing and Climate Risk through a Green New Deal for Housing
by Daniel Aldana Cohen
The risks of social inequality and climate change are converging in American homes—for those lucky enough to have them. By one estimate, the country has a shortage of almost 7.5 million homes for extremely low-income households. Meanwhile, roughly 20 million American households spend half their income on rent or mortgage payments; another 20 million spend a third. It gets worse.
Fully one third of Americans face major challenges paying their utility bills—that is, they have recently received a shut-off notice, sacrificed in other areas (like food) to cover utility bills, or kept their home at an unsafe temperature. This pattern is racialized. In the mid-Atlantic, fully half of Black households are energy insecure. According to one study, the main reason Americans take out pay-day loans is to pay utility bills—followed by everyday expenses, followed by rent.
What does all this housing injustice have to do with climate change? Everything. Could anything but a Green New Deal for Housing address all the intersecting housing and climate crises in a way that improves people’s lives, accelerates decarbonization, and increases resiliency?
After all, no climate policy can dispense with housing; it’s hard to imagine a successful housing policy that neither meets desperate Americans’ needs, nor slashes carbon emissions. Already, American homes cause a sixth of US greenhouse gas emissions, just a bit more than all commercial buildings combined. And transportation by private car, mostly to and from homes, causes another sixth of emissions. Added up, that’s one third of emissions, from living at home and traveling back and forth.
To zero out carbon emissions as quickly as humanly possible will mean transforming home energy systems, stripping heating oil and natural gas out of very home in the space of a decade or two, and enabling far less energy-intensive modes of transportation.
We’ll also need new homes. Tens of millions of them. For one thing, climate change will move people around. By one estimate, up to 13 million people could be displaced by sea-level rise alone by 2100; 6 million from South Florida. But there will also be cities like Phoenix where by the middle of the century, it will be over 95F for 152 days, even with extreme cuts to carbon emissions. Alongside sea-level rise, extreme heat, drought, inland flooding, and fire patterns will also doubtless push people to move. And people will keep being born. And unless the country turns into a nativist hell-hole, tens of millions of immigrants will arrive by the end of the century, many fleeing even worse climactic conditions.
So we must not only retrofit the homes we have; we must build new homes—indeed, new communities—that emit no carbon, that facilitate walking, biking, and other no-carbon transport, and that remediate inequalities of class and race.
Underlying and uniting all the risks of climate change and inequality is political risk. How ugly would politics get if only the affluent and geographically fortunate get access to low-cost clean energy, greenery, and safety from climate disasters? This trend to eco-apartheid, facilitated by private service providers who are not utterly focused on equity, is hardly a far-fetched prospect.
Just this past summer, on July 21st, New York electricity utility Con-Edison cut off power to at least 30,000 customers in the mostly Black Canarsie neighborhood to avoid broader outages. Canarsie’s Black population has grown significantly since the year 2000 while the Black population plummeted in gentrifying neighborhoods in more central parts of Brooklyn—whose power services Con-Edison prioritized.
In California, we are witnessing a slow trend toward grid defection, where communities unplug from the electricity grid if they can afford enough solar panels, batteries, and generators. Just as Con-Edison failed to actually prepare for climate change’s heat extremes, in California, the investor-owned utility PG&E failed to inspect power lines that sparked massive forest fires; PG&E’s regulations were such that savings from maintenance could be passed on to investors as dividends.
In a more mundane sense, the high costs of housing in the US right now mean that moving—for work, for family, or to escape climate risk—will seem traumatic, if not impossible. What are the conditions under which a new Great Migration could be good for the environment and bearable—even life-improving—for the migrants?
A Green New Deal for Housing represents a vision of massive investment in millions of units of new, beautiful, no-carbon social housing every decade; such a vision makes most sense as part of a broader “Homes Guarantee.” The new social housing would displace much of the wasteful, inefficient private-market construction with dense, transit-connected, sustainable homes. Already, in New York, affordable housing is leading the technological development of sustainable living environments.
A Green New Deal for Housing would also make investments into saving and upgrading the public housing that already exists. And it would channel green investment into low-income communities to weatherize homes, remediate lead and mold, and create jobs and community wealth. Wherever appropriate, such funds could facilitate the establishment of community land-trusts, as in poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Baltimore where there are crumbling row homes in desperate need of rehabilitation; taking them off the market and upgrading them would make them permanent community assets.
Inspired by California’s Affordable Housing in Sustainable Communities program, a Green New Deal for Housing would also ensure that housing investments are always tied to transit investments that enable easy, no-carbon mobility from home to work, social service, and public recreation amenities.
Finally, a Green New Deal for Housing could only work as part of a broader system. For one thing, all this implies a dramatic reform of federal agencies, and likely of federalism itself. For another, as discussed above, these policies could never be separate from energy policies. Indeed, one of the principal upshots of all this green investment should be reducing energy demand and improving the affordability and quality of home living at the same time.
This is a big dream. But do we have another choice? Bad housing policy, in the form of red-lining, turned the emancipatory promises of the first Great Migration and the New Deal into cruel and enduring segregation, creating a massive racial wealth gap and feeding mass incarceration. Meanwhile, the abandonment of public housing and the modest War on Poverty has little to show for it. The housing policies of recent decades have created wealth for millions—and a way of living utterly at odds with sustainability and equity.
The safer path is social and environmental ambition—mitigating risk by mobilizing wealth to build affordable and sustainable homes for all.
Daniel Aldana Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)².