By Daniel Aldana Cohen* – The Nation
The climate crisis is converging with a housing crisis. We need to tackle both with a Green New Deal for Housing.
The heat is on. A heat wave is breaking records across much of Western Europe. And this weekend sweltering heat baked half the United States. For some media outlets and climate advocates, the heat waves were a chance to remind people: This isn’t normal. This is what the climate emergency feels like, and this is how it kills. We also saw some media outlets publish recent maps that show which parts of cities are heat islands. Of course, those converge with low-income and racialized neighborhoods, while greenery that cools the air is found disproportionately in white and affluent areas.
To top it off, we learned on Monday that New York utility Con Ed intentionally cut off power to the majority-black Canarsie neighborhood to avoid risking broader blackouts. Amazingly, the utility wasn’t prepared for a major heat wave and sacrificed low-income black customers to ride out the crisis. Eco-apartheid, which I define as a regime of greening affluence for the few at the expense of the many, is the path of business as usual.
And yet there was something frustratingly superficial about all this coverage, even when it focused on inequality.
In the era of the Green New Deal, journalists and activists still struggle to convey just how profoundly the climate emergency, our political economy, and social inequalities are connected. As a result, they’re still missing how much egalitarian green investment—like a Green New Deal for Housing—could address social, economic, and environmental crises at the same time. And while this policy idea is specific to the US context, an intersectional analysis here could enrich global debates about what effective and equitable green investment could look like around the world.
In the United States, we need to bring two oft-ignored dynamics into the main story. The first is that not everyone confronts extreme heat with the same ability to crank the AC (if they even have it). Countrywide, a third of households are experiencing energy insecurity—that is, they have recently received a utility shutoff notice, cut back on necessities like food to pay utility bills, or kept their home at an unsafe temperature. The stress of being unable to afford a safe home environment can cause asthma attacks, chronic anxiety, and depression.
Race and class are key drivers of energy insecurity. On average, lower-income people pay 25 percent more for energy per square foot of housing than better-off ones because their homes and appliances need to be upgraded. Meanwhile, in the mid-Atlantic, fully half of black households are energy insecure. Now imagine how they’ll cope with worsening heat emergencies.
In the 2010s in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, there have been on average three extreme heat days (over 95 degrees Fahrenheit) per year. A weekend like we just had. By 2050, it’s projected that there will be 27 such days. In Atlanta in 2050 it will be 41 extreme heat days; in Dallas it will be 90 days. Absent massive egalitarian investment, this will be deadly. In 1995 a Chicago heat wave killed 465, felling black residents at a rate 50 percent higher than whites. In France in 2003 a heat wave notoriously killed 15,000; today, with greatly improved public policies, heat waves have killed 475 to 1,500 people per summer since 2016. And heat waves are guaranteed to get hotter and more frequent.
The second dynamic we need a better grasp of is the energy footprint of cooling. AC comes up in angry debates for or against but typically divorced from more holistic analysis. Yes, air conditioning is polluting—especially in leaky homes with old air conditioners. According to an International Energy Agency study, the global energy demand for cooling will triple by 2050 under current policies, making decarbonization that much harder. But we can change the policies and the technology. The newest units are vastly more efficient; it’s just that lower-income households don’t usually have them. And there are even better technologies, like electric-powered heat-transfer pumps, which can heat in winter and cool in summer. Widespread adoption of these systems would cut energy use in general and natural gas consumption in particular: cheaper safety and comfort, less carbon and fracking.
The same study found that more-stringent energy standards would cut the projected energy demand for cooling by more than half—while sparing tens of millions of people, especially in the Global South, from extraordinary heat. Improved building design and increased greenery would cut that energy demand even further. The richest tenth of the global population is responsible for half of carbon emissions; if we curb the consumption of the affluent, we can have more than enough clean energy to keep homes comfortably safe worldwide.
Yes, installing more efficient and comfortable systems in the United States will take money, both for retrofits and new construction. But targeted investments in racialized, working-class communities to decarbonize and increase resiliency is the core idea of the Green New Deal. The climate crisis and the cost-of-living crises are converging in American homes. And so are potential solutions.
A Green New Deal for Housing would retrofit public, subsidized, and low-income homes. It could use the power of public purchase and procurement to get low-carbon appliances into the homes that need them. Public investment and regulation would also lower the costs of the most efficient appliance technologies for everyone.
All this would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the building trades. It could revitalize appliance manufacture in the United States. And the focus on efficient appliances and energy systems would spare us the individualized green moralizing that doesn’t make a difference anyway.
The key is to fuse the demands—and the social movements—for climate and housing progress. And while climate activists have gotten the attention lately, the housing movement’s growing confidence and power are just as impressive. Both the real estate and fossil fuel industries are finally under siege from powerful insurgencies.
Progressive movements and think tanks have been issuing detailed reports calling for national rent control and massive federal investment in new public housing construction, with groups like People’s Action calling for a Homes Guarantee. The Democratic presidential candidates are following suit.
The housing movement just won huge legislative battles in Oregon and New York State. And in New York, days after the tenants’ victory, the state’s climate justice movement won passage of an ambitious bill that would cut emissions to net zero by 2050—while ensuring that over a third of clean-energy spending benefits low-income and racialized communities.
Through no-carbon public housing construction and the kinds of building upgrades described above, a Green New Deal for Housing would be a perfect vehicle for such targeted investments. (All told, US homes are currently responsible for nearly one-sixth of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.)
And such a framework could unite climate, housing, and racial justice movements—and architects and designers. The New York Times reports that long-range cost concerns already have made affordable housing a leader in extremely low-energy building construction methods. In Norwich, England, the town’s housing authority built 100 lovely, award-winning three-story units of social housing to an extremely efficient passive house standard; green affordable housing can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes to fit their communities.
New and rehabilitated public housing complexes would also make ideal resiliency centers, providing physical and social infrastructure. Every public housing complex could double as a community cooling center during heat waves. And with solar rooftops, microgrids, and batteries, they could be refuges during storms when the power goes off.
All told, a Green New Deal for Housing would drive down carbon emissions, increase resiliency, and attack economic and racial inequalities. Contra the complaints of centrists, an ambitious and intersectional climate policy isn’t a gratuitous and expensive add-on. The massive green investment would, in fact, be the logical result of connecting the dots between all our environmental, economic, and social crises—and between the growing movements that are fighting for transformative change.
*Daniel Aldana Cohenis an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2.