Sacred Headwaters #31: "Housing Policy is Climate Policy"

Densification, green building standards, and transit planning are important climate actions. But paradoxically, if affordability isn't a key tenet, they can actually cause emissions to rise.

Sacred Headwaters is a bi-weekly newsletter that aims to guide a co-learning process about the existential issues and planetary limitations facing humanity and about how we can reorient civilization in a way that will enable us to thrive for centuries to come. If you’re just joining us, consider checking out the first issue for some context and head over to our table of contents to browse the whole library. The newsletters are not strictly sequential, but this exploration is meant to build on knowledge and understanding over time. Subscribe below if you haven’t already, and please share with friends, family, and colleagues who may be interested:

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Sacred Headwaters has a rudimentary table of contents intended to allow readers to “catch up” more effectively, facilitate using Sacred Headwaters as a reference, and give a better picture of what the newsletter is about for those who are just joining us.

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Issue #31: “Housing Policy is Climate Policy”

I had so much…fun…writing the last series on debt that I figured I’d start another one, this time on housing. I’m optimistic that it will help tie together some of the threads we’ve been weaving here about climate change, public investment, neoliberalism, debt, and inequality. The next three (possibly four) issues will focus on housing and housing policy:

Housing policy isn’t consistently talked about as an important lever for climate change mitigation. The word housing doesn’t appear in Project Drawdown’s “solutions” and while housing affordability is very much a visible problem and a priority in many communities, including my own, it’s not often placed in the context of climate change. But it’s critically important: housing is probably the most materially intensive thing we interact with on a day-to-day basis; housing infrastructure controls how much and what kind of energy we use; and housing defines how far we have to travel for work and other necessities. Housing is also fundamentally affected by historic inequities that are proactively perpetuated by governments at every level. Many of the legal structures that make climate-friendly housing policy difficult have their roots in explicitly racist policy-making over the last century, though aspects of that are a story for another time (highly recommend The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein). Probably most critically, housing policy offers one of our best opportunities to reduce private car ownership in the Global North and to stem its growth in other parts of the world, something that’s less popular but arguably more important than transitioning to electric vehicles.

Housing policy and urban planning also have a close relationship to climate adaptation and resilience. Florida is the obvious example, where destroyed homes and developments have been rebuilt multiple times in the same location despite increasing risk from sea level rise and extreme weather, but it applies to new development as well. Developers aren’t concerned with the longevity or climate risk of where they’re building because they offload that risk to others (purchasers, insurers, and the government), and in an environment where local governments are more or less powerless to resist, this leads to poor planning and immense risk over the coming decades: for the people living there, for the communities, and for the broader financial and social system. This existing climate risk also speaks to another reason housing policy is so important: over the coming decades, we will see millions of people driven to intra-national migration due to climate change in the US. Where will they live?

The emissions impacts of housing policy are complicated. Densification, green building standards, and well-planned and accessible public transit are all important steps toward a low-carbon future. But paradoxically, every one of those things can also contribute to rising housing costs, gentrification, and displacement, which in turn increase emissions because of commuting. It means these solutions can’t be seen as unequivocally good, but are still clearly necessary, leaving us with a puzzling question: how can we pursue a better and more sustainable urban environment without worsening displacement — almost invariably along racial lines — and inadvertently increasing emissions?

In this issue, we’re going to read about about how the links between land use planning, housing affordability, and emissions reduction and attempt to explore the paradoxes involved. The lines between this issue and the next two are fuzzy and there will undoubtedly be some overlap, but the basic roadmap is: today, we read about the mechanisms through which housing affordability and urban planning can help or hinder our efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change; in the next issue, we’ll read about some of the drivers of the housing affordability crisis globally and how we might escape the runaway inflationary pressure of financialization; and in the last issue, we’ll read (more) about how public housing programs might help resolve all of these issues, as well as looking at some inspiring examples of public housing programs from the past (they were widespread globally prior to the 1990s) and present, mostly in Europe.

To save the planet, the Green New Deal needs to improve urban land use (5 minutes)

This short piece from the Brookings Institution lays out the ways land use planning and housing policy interact with emissions and climate adaptation succinctly:

Better urban land use would reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from cars and limit the human and financial costs caused by developing environmentally risky land.

Schuetz explains the mechanisms by which that works, primarily pointing to how a lack of affordable housing drives middle and lower income families to move further and further from their jobs in urban centers, increasing the amount of vehicle travel that has to happen. Schuetz also briefly alludes to some of the equity problems involved with an example that is emblematic of the way “individual action” on climate change manifests universally: wealthier people can afford to live in more walkable neighborhoods with amenities and transit, allowing them to drive less, while working class people are forced by structural conditions beyond their control to have to drive more. The article speaks to some of the pushback from wealthier urban communities against densification and more effective planning (“NIMBYism”) and touches on the impacts of land use planning on adaptation as well. It’s short, but it outlines many of the issues and is full of citations I’d encourage you to check out.

How Rethinking Affordable Homes Connects with the Climate Fight (10 minutes)

There’s no doubt that any climate mitigation strategy needs to include aggressive green building standards, retrofits for existing structures, and so on. But even mandating Passive House standards is a double-edged sword if not deployed in concert with affordability measures. In this article focused on Vancouver, Canada, but with lessons for major metropolitan areas globally, Geoff Dembicki explores the conflict between the green language of developers and densification and the fundamental problems created by a lack of housing affordability. He cites a policy analyst from New York, Samuel Stein, who argues that expensive urban developments — even under inclusionary zoning policies and with strict sustainable construction standards — can actually contribute to rising emissions because they can accelerate the displacement of the working class, creating urban sprawl and increasing the number of miles people have to travel by car. This is a subtle point but a really important one: the language of sustainability, and even the technocratic solutions, are readily coopted to greenwash tactics that actually worsen climate change. Broadly speaking, more housing is good and sustainable housing is better, but it’s only actually good when it helps increase affordability and consequently reduces vehicle travel. There’s an interesting and related conundrum here: despite the ability to live lower-carbon lifestyles in walkable, expensive urban centers, these denser communities tend to have higher footprints because wealthier people have higher consumptive habits.

Gentrification: Climate Change's Latest Threat (10 minutes)

This article exposes a pathway through which climate change itself can cause gentrification (which, in turn, exacerbates climate change by increasing emissions and marginalizes already-marginalized communities). The term “climate gentrification” was coined by Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane, and refers to the idea that climate disasters can actually create and accelerate gentrification. There are two mechanisms through which this might happen: first, real estate developers take advantage of cheap land in post-disaster areas and build newer, more expensive housing. Second, wealthier people who live in more disaster-prone neighborhoods — like Miami Beach, for example — move inland to escape climate risk and end up displacing traditionally lower-income communities by driving up housing costs. The research that this article outlines, focused on New Orleans post-Katrina, has since been published and does indeed establish a link between Hurricane Katrina and rapid gentrification. While this research isn’t specifically focused on mitigating or adapting to climate change, it speaks to how we can prioritize climate justice in our actions and urban planning.

A Green New Deal for Housing (20 minutes)

In this piece, Cohen attempts to reconcile the paradoxical issues raised above: density and sustainable construction are both needed to decrease emissions, but market density (especially more expensive zero-carbon market density) can often displace working class people, increasing “vehicle miles travelled” (VMTs) and ultimately increasing emissions. To compound the issue further, effective public transit — another necessary component of the climate action toolkit — often drives rising home prices and gentrification, displacing lower-income people in a similar way. Cohen argues that the only way to escape these traps is to build massive-scale public housing as part of a Green New Deal program (in the US). He places a strong emphasis on the racial inequities baked into existing public housing, housing policy, and climate disaster impacts, including those explicitly created by the original New Deal, and argues that a Green New Deal public housing program could be our opportunity to rectify the wealth and well-being inequities that practices like redlining created while simultaneously reducing emissions and building resilience. Cohen touches briefly on Vienna’s social housing as an inspiring example; that’s something we’ll read more about in Issue #33.

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