by Dana Bourland
Two of the biggest problems we face today — a shortage of decent, affordable housing and climate change — are connected. Fortunately, the solutions are connected as well. That’s why we must not only “build back better” in the wake of pandemic and recession, but build back greener.
Most housing in the United States is inefficient and expensive to heat and cool. That means high utility bills and higher carbon emissions; residential energy use accounts for a fifth of climate-changing greenhouse gases emitted in the United States.
At the same time, the facilities that produce the power to build and operate our homes — like coal-fired power plants — contribute to a changing climate. Because they are often located in communities of color, these facilities also exacerbate environmental injustice. And producing the petrochemicals used in adhesives, cabinets, carpets, insulation and other building materials not only contributes to climate change, but pollutes the air outside and inside our homes.
The good news is that we can address our housing crisis and our climate crisis with green affordable housing at no additional cost.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes a large allocation for housing — an important first step. And the much-needed recent expansion of the Weatherization Assistance Program will make homes more comfortable and efficient.
But these investments can accomplish so much more, by “greening” the entire building supply chain. That means going beyond energy consumption in our homes to address energy usage and petrochemicals in the manufacturing and transportation of building materials.
In other words, how we build is as important as what we build. We can’t make one home green while polluting other communities in the process.
Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” calls for investing $213 billion in the nation’s housing infrastructure. This includes $40 billion to repair public housing, $45 billion for the national Housing Trust Fund, an expansion of the Housing Choice Voucher program and more.
The administration can “green” this investment by requiring these programs to use holistic green affordable housing criteria. These should go beyond energy efficiency to include the use of sustainably produced, non-toxic building materials. In this way, the infrastructure bill could help stabilize the climate and improve public health while expanding access to affordable housing.
Similarly, the Weatherization Assistance Program could be expanded to include health and safety improvements as well as energy-efficiency upgrades, creating well-paying jobs for contractors while reducing triggers for asthma and other health impacts.
To solve our housing and climate crises, we must integrate how we think about both. We do not have the time or the resources to meet our housing crisis without considering how to meet our climate crisis. And if new investments in infrastructure deploy green building practices, we can score a triple win for housing, health and the climate.
By building back better and greener, we can ensure that everyone — regardless of race or income — has a home in a thriving community on a flourishing planet.
Dana Bourland is vice president of the Environment Program at the JPB Foundation and author of “Gray to Green Communities: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises.”