Affordable Housing = Fighting Climate Change

Affordable housing is a climate solution. 

On surface level, that statement may give folks some pause. But when you take a deeper look into the nuts and bolts on the issue of housing, the opportunity for climate action is as large as the mansions you see on television. 

But, this chance for action starts with acknowledging the overall problem every state and city has: there are a lot of families with too few affordable housing options available to them.  

The fact is, the United States is in the midst of a dire housing crisis – particularly among low-income renters. Low-and-moderate income (LMI) and extremely low-income (ELI) households are too often faced with very few affordable living opportunities. In fact, about 70-percent of ELI households spend more than half of their incomes on rent alone. And communities where single-family housing and parking lots make up a majority of land use practically eliminate affordable housing options for many of these families. 

The opportunities that do exist often fall in neighborhoods where high pollution is prevalent. Affordable housing is often too outdated, fails to provide necessary tree cover, and does not meet modern clean energy or efficiency standards. Because many of these units are in poor quality – including but not limited to thin walls and deteriorating roofs with little insulation – too many tenants have unsustainably high utility bills and live in buildings not equipped for clean energy or electrification upgrades. Nationally, housing accounts for nearly 40-percent of energy consumption, responsible for about thirteen-percent of carbon dioxide emissions, making housing a critical sector in our clean energy transition. 

Simply put: In order to reduce building emissions and ensure adequate housing needs for all, state and local governments must invest in affordable housing, building upgrades, and electrification. In addition to updating the existing building landscape, it’s a win-win for climate and affordable energy if state and local governments electrify new building construction – particularly affordable housing units. Electrification can help lower both costs and emissions. And the best part: there are existing tools that climate leaders can use to accomplish these goals. 

For starters, property owners and construction companies can leverage the Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) electrification tax credits and rebates. These tax credits reduce the total cost of building upgrades and electric appliances, and the rebates provide discounts for LMI households for home electric projects. While these resources can be easily accessible for property owners, renter-property owner dynamics unfortunately remain a significant barrier.  

Additional federal programs exist to help residents upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). States can help maximize these federal dollars as well, like Virginia is doing through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). In its first year participating in the RGGI program, the Commonwealth generated about $114 million in revenue to help provide low-income households with safe, affordable, and energy-efficient homes. The program has been a resounding success, saving low-income households about 20-percent in utility costs when combined with additional federal assistance. 

Local governments also have a role to play in this effort. In March, Climate Cabinet Education released a guidebook to help municipal leaders maximize the IRA’s historic climate investments. Doing this transition allows cities, utilities, and individuals to use clean energy resources that would reduce monthly costs for families. Local elected leaders – like city councils – can leverage these dollars, and in turn, help homeowners access these benefits too. 

Beyond solutions to address the existing building infrastructure, state and local leaders can also revisit zoning codes and land-use policies to create more affordable housing opportunities, such as multi-unit “middle” housing in areas previously zoned exclusively for single-family households. Reducing lot sizes or parking minimums can also open doors for more housing supply and affordable housing opportunities. Denser urban centers can also provide a win-win for neighborhoods by connecting affordable housing with alternative modes of transportation – like walking, biking, and public transit – in these larger cities. This helps to reduce transportation pollution and shorten commute times, which has been shown to be the number one indicator of upward mobility potential for LMI communities.   

Finally, state and local governments can make use of the National Housing Trust Fund (HTF) for their affordable housing needs. This program provides grants that allows states to build, renovate, or preserve housing opportunities for ELI households. Combined with the IRA’s tax credits and rebates, these properties could transition to 100% clean energy. 

No one part of the nation is immune from this housing crisis – no matter the zip code. Coastal communities have the same needs as landlocked states. The nation’s largest cities and its most rural towns have equally failed to meet demand. 

There are solutions each community can use to meet their own specific affordable housing needs, and once implemented, they’ll be fighting the climate crisis in the process.